Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Scribbling in the margins

At Christmas time, I traveled with my girlfriend to Florida to visit her family. This included her mother and her brother and his family, a wife and nearly-grown son and daughter. It was a fun time, and I particularly enjoyed getting the chance to get to know the brother and his wife and the children.

At one point, I was speaking to the daughter, my girlfriend's niece Hope Ann, and Hope Ann expressed with great vehemence her disgust that anyone would ever write anything in a published book. This put her at odds with me, since I have always written notes and comments in the margins of books in my library. But to be civil, I didn't say anything, choosing instead to take the time to mull over why I write in books, and whether this is as reprehensible a habit as Hope Ann seemed to suggest.

I guess the first writing I ever did was in novels that I read. First of all, I would write my name inside the front cover of the book, because at that time it never occurred to me that these books would not belong to me for the rest of my life. And then there were times in reading novels when I would read a passage that was just marvelous, and I would want to make note of it so I could back and read it again. So I would underline or circle the paragraph, and maybe put an asterisk or exclamation point in the margin. And maybe in the flyleaf of the book, I would write the page number(s) to direct myself to where my favorite passage lay.

Then as I got older, I started reading non-fiction books - books on psychology and self-help books and mythology and so on. Now, as I read, I not only found interesting, striking passages that I wanted to underline, but I also encountered things that I disagreed with. Either way, I felt compelled to do more than just make note of the author's writing. I wanted to react to it with writing of my own, to say "Yes!" or "No!" and then give my own take on the subject being described. I wanted to, as it were, enter into a dialogue with the author, even if the author would never have a chance to offer a rebuttal to my reaction.

Then when I entered graduate school at Columbia, I encountered writing of a different sort: updating and correcting the author. In music history, which is what I was studying, as in many fields of study, ideas evolve over time, and what was accepted as truth previously, now in the light of new evidence is obviously incorrect. The problem is that books are often not published in academic circles quickly enough to reflect the changes in ideas. So professors, and some students as well, will write into the margins to reflect the current accepted ideas. Some times this was absolutely practical. I remember, for example, how a book from the 1950s included some instructions about how to read ancient notation that were incorrect. The author at the time didn't know that, but in the 1980s we did, so someone politely made the correction.

This way of dialoguing with authors has informed my recent reading of travel guides. Guides are another part of publishing where the updating and published of new editions does not keep up with change. For example, my girlfriend recently was chastising me for still carrying around a Rough Guide for Spain that I bought in 2006. Her point was that, if I bought it in 2006, that meant the book probably reflected what was correct in 2004, and therefore, by 2011, the book was probably mostly inaccurate. She had a point, but what she didn't know was that I had been making notes expressing my opinions about things I had seen and places I had gone, so that whether accurate or inaccurate, the book was becoming something of an encyclopedia of my previous travel experiences.

I think it is necessary whenever purchasing travel guides to be willing to take extensive notes. I try to incorporate changes and inaccuracies as they are encountered into my word-processed itinerary. But guide books are there with us when we are looking for sushi restaurants and hotels with softbeds, so it makes perfect sense that as we bite into tuna rolls and climb narrow staircases, we can pause for a second to jot something in our guide ("tasty!" or "no elevator!" or whatever is appropriate). We owe it to ourselves to make these emendations, and to whoever may ever borrow a guide book from us or ask for our opinion on a travel destination.

And finally, the place where I know writing to be most crucial is in using cookbooks. However accurate cooks and chefs try to be in writing down recipes, there are always things that need to be changed, or things that are implicit to them that need to be made explicit to me. So I am constantly writing each time after I make a recipe, to remind myself that the amount of sugar was woefully low in a brownie recipe, or that paella will never cook at a 200 degree temperature in my oven. I could decide to not write anything, but chances are that if, after making what I judge to be the proper change to make the recipe work, I enjoy the results, I am going to want to make the recipe again. And there's no guarantee that, a year after baking cornish hens for the first time, I will remember how to make the dressing so that it is not too mushy. So I better write my own changes down.

So, Hope Ann, I regret to inform you that I will remain an unrepentant margin scribbler. It is part of the process of bringing words to life, that I am compelled to add my own words in order to produce something that is, ultimately, useful to me. However much the author whose work I am spoiling may be a genius, their book has found its way into my hands and into my home, and now it is subject to my needs and whims. But rest assured, I am not ruining anyone's work, just adapting it, making it more useful and I hope, richer.

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