Rough Love

I’ve just been over on Goodreads and that, in combination with a book I’ve picked up, has exercised my mind no end. The subject being discussed at Goodreads (join up if you haven’t already – it’s wonderful) is how you treat your books. Well, I treat mine bad, and they stick around …

More seriously, the books I own are annotated, they possess marginalia, post-it notes, folded corners, broken spines and even screeds written on the inside covers. They have weird symbols in various colours dotted around the text and at least one Dorothy Parker hardback has no less than nine bookmarks in it – I can see them from here.

The book I’ve been reading is called How To Write Fiction (And Think About It) and suggests that writers keep a reading log in which they: make notes on passages they admire, record how the author produces certain effects, draw conclusions on what they’ve read. Good ideas all … but why not do them in the book? I mean the books you own, of course, not library books or those of friends. Why separate yourself from the book to write about it? To me this would tend towards the deconstruction of, rather than the immediate response to, the written word. It would make one consider one’s grammar and punctuation, removing the reader still further from the text on which they wish to comment and it would become an exercise in reading back and seeing how ‘well’ one was doing.

My books sit on the shelf and whenever I take them down, my thoughts on them are interlinear – poking out from or woven around the lines of the book itself. Some books, The Once and Future King (complete edition) comes to mind, have at least five sets of notes, the earliest from my first reading as a child the most recent from last year, when I revisited the book as a craft exercise to see how TH White handles the seasons … and it’s like sitting down next to myself when I was eleven to read those first exclamation marks and comments. I havent’ had room to ‘tidy’ or ‘improve’ my thoughts, so they’ve remained rough-hewn and emotional, and because of that, when I come back to them, I am taken to the moment I wrote them.

In my copy of The Once and Future King is a series of underlinings in the first book, The Sword in the Stone – they date from the time my 28 day old son was in hospital, undergoing an emergency operation. I wasn’t allowed to hold him, so I sat by the cot and read to him of the Wart’s journey as a fish, a bird and a badger – whether it did him any good I don’t know, but I remember thinking that if he didn’t pull through he would at least have ‘shared’ some of the most magical moments of my own childhood. He’s nearly sixteen now, and is sick of the stories about how he nearly died as a baby, but whenever I pick up the book, I remember …

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