Monday, May 15, 2006

Can this line ever be drawn?

I read The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had over a year ago. I went out and bought the first two books in the History reading list and the first book in the Fiction reading list, and finally began reading Herodotus' Histories a few months ago. I was really enjoying it, but about two weeks into reading, I essentially gave up. (I still pick it up periodically, but I am not engaging the book as I once was.)

I have a few reasons (excuses) for giving up:

1. I have 4 children that I homeschool. Finding a time that is consistent and sufficient in length and a place that is quiet where my book won't "wander off" when I set it down is very difficult to find.

2. The very thought of reading ancient history as written by an ancient author is extremely overwhelming and intimidating.

3. Since I had no outside accountability, I lost the impetus to keep going as soon as I hit a difficult passage since I had no one to talk through it with.

but the main reason:

4. I cannot make myself write in a book.

Both Susan Wise Bauer (the author of The Well-Educated Mind) and Mortimer Adler (the author of How to Read a Book - which I am presently reading as part of an online book club) recommend writing in books. There are many reasons that they suggest getting into this habit... from noting passages that you have difficulty understanding to simply noting your half of the "conversation" that you are having with the author. I completely understand why readers participate in this practice and it makes perfect sense to me to make notes in the books as I read rather than keep a seperate journal that may get lost or requires me to abandon the asthetic of and engagement with the book to make notes. I just have a very difficult time doing it.

I went to government schools where I was absolutley forbidden to write in a book. I also borrowed many, many library books as a child (still do), and again it was taboo to write in a book. I would never have considered writing in one of my own books as a child... although it is not really necessary to write in the margins of a Curious George or a Nancy Drew book. When I got to college, I did highlight some of my text books, but if I wanted to take notes, I would keep them in a seperate notebook. The first book I ever wrote notes is was my copy of Darwin's Origin of Species. That was last year. I have read the book before, but this was the first time I really studied it. I got halfway through the book, and when I stopped to look back at all my notes and underlining, I thought, "What am I doing?!" I haven't picked it up since.

I have gotten books out of the library where someone has written a note in the margin or underlined something, and it made me angry that someone took it upon themselves to taint the book with thier own thoughts. I was not allowed the gift of experinencing the book in its virgin form and formulating my own thoughts. My reading and understanding of the book would be forever skewed by that tiny note or faint line.

But those are library books. I am not talking about writing in a library book. I am talking about writing in a book that I own. Why can't I write in a book that is mine to do with as I please? When I know that engaging the book my puring over it and taking notes would increase my understanding of it?

Two reasons come to mind. First of all, I am just not in the habit of writing in my books. This is something that can be slowly overcome by just starting to make notes in books as I read. The second reason is that I frequently lend books to family and friends, so I don't want to taint their reading of the book. Granted, I am probably not going to take notes in a Stephen King book which I am much nore likely to lend out than my copy of Herodotus' Histories, but many of the books I do take notes in, I expect my children to read some day. I don't want to rob them of the joy of having their own conversation with Shakespeare or Herodotus or Cervantes.

All this debating and justifying is not going to get me any closer to being able to write in my books. I guess I just need to sharpen my pencil and find a cozy corner and start reading and conversing with my books. And as the children get older, I will continue what I am already doing, give my children thier own copies of books so that they can join in the Great Conversation.

Poet Laureate Billy Collins has a wonderful poem about writing in books entitled Marginalia:

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

Per ClassicalMamma's request, here is the link to my brief notes on Chapter One of HTRAB.

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