Apr 2, 2012


Came across a fascinating discussion on the Guardian books page on marginalia, or the scribbling down of one’s thoughts/notes while reading a book, where most commentators seemed outraged that any reader would callously maim a book by scribbling on its margins. I disagreed. 

I am a compulsive annotator; most of my books have notes scribbled on their margins; passages of outstanding linguistic virtuosity and sections that have filled me with outrage or immense joy are underlined. I am not in the habit of picking up second-hand books (the market’s dismal in India), but occasionally some distant relative passes on a much-cherished book to me. My collections of short stories of Maupassant and Edgar Allan Poe, and novels of Victor Hugo are all legacies from my mom’s uncle. Some of them have his scribbles in the margins – in faded, beautiful handwriting. When I first started reading Maupassant in class 8, I remember looking forward to what phool dadu had scribbled about a particular story. I guess if I came across a copy of American Pastoral all dog-eared and full of a previous reader’s notes, I wouldn’t mind it at all. I would think it made the book a dynamic object, containing not only the words and ideas of Philip Roth, but also another reader before me. Isn’t that a treasure nonpareil?

Reading is a deeply personal and intense experience – in the confines of your bed or chair, with the ashtray beside you, and the drapes pulled aside to reveal the tree tops outside, you sit absorbing words that a Woolf or a Pamukh took months to pen. The careful reader doesn’t merely read – he looks for clues in what was left unsaid, he looks for subterfuge in what was said, and he makes it a dialogue, not a mere monologue. He scribbles and tells the author about similar experiences he may have had, or similar characters he may be familiar with. He shares with the author things he cannot bring himself to share with any other. He intuits when the author’s heart is soaring as his protagonist tells a 10-year old boy while flying kites, "For you a thousand times over", as also when an author has seen defeat and written about the, “enormous assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things.” Can there be a truer soul mate than an intuitive reader? 


Selecting a Reader by Ted Hooser

First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She should be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,
"For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned." And she will


jd said...

well said and it feels nice to read the flow of words. very nice indeed.

the most coherent post in a long time:)

drift wood said...


Glad you enjoyed. Thanks.

Shoumitro said...

A moth-eaten collection of Maupassant is my legacy from my father... sweet of you to bring that to mind.

Father used to scribble extensively on the margins... would refer to other books, even to the relevant page numbers, would insert his own comments.

Anything written about books pleases the mind, and when it comes from your pen, the joy is double!

siva said...

Reading is a personal conduit between the author and the reader. The best of movies fail to touch that enchanting kinship. Vikram Seth's latest work was very bonding.
And for side notes, my father speaks to me through his underlined old books . . .

drift wood said...


Yeah? I am strangely tempted to read his scribbles on the maupassant. :)

Your words reminded of something that hadn't struck me hitherto - if D comes to love these books as much as i do, some day she would be reading my scribbles, no?


Lucky you that he does.
I haven't read Seth's latest. Which is it? I loved his An Equal Music though.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post. :)

Don't know which I enjoy more though, your writing on books or films or cricket or life.


drift wood said...

They all stem from the same impulse. what can i say? It feels good to have such generous praise. Thanks :)

vaidegi j said...

Ya, it made interesting reads atleast, most of the time. Sometimes they happen to be a bit disconcerting, especially if they don't happen to match with our line of thoughts!:-)
But again as you say if its within the family, then its a great way to pass on ones personal observations and interpretations, which might or might not always be concurrent with those of the future holder of the book, but still small comfort that we would be establising a connection of some sort, even in our absence.(phew!a long winding sentence :-) )

drift wood said...


That was long (-:

Good to see u again.