Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Toby Lichtig confesses — no, boasts:
I am, of course, talking about defacing books – a much maligned practice of which I am a passionate disciple. My flirtation with textual mutilation started off at school with primly creased corners and pencilled underlinings, but I soon progressed to cocksure highlighting and full-blown ink-on-paper action – the effluence of engagement, the living, livid trace of dialogue. If, as the poststructuralists have suggested, the act of reading is an act of violence, then scrawling across the page in cheap biro must be its logical corollary.
I'm not just talking about highbrow jottings: notes and queries, references and witticisms, the literary art of "marginalia" (a term coined in 1832 by that keenest of annotators, Samuel Taylor Coleridge). No, in my library anything goes: doodles, numbers, addresses, lists, recipes and the ensuing food stains. Personalising my books is an intrinsic part of the interaction (which is why I tend to be neurotic about holding on to what I've read). Perhaps it's the fault of my somewhat sluggish memory: the marks and scrawls help me to recall the text – and, crucially, the person I was when reading it: how I was feeling, where I was sitting, whom I was with. The smears on my copy of The Scarlet and the Black (coffee certainly; jam I think) take me back to the cafe in Rovereto in northern Italy, where I read it over the course of a week in 2002. When I look at my edition of Dracula, with half of its cover torn away, I'm reminded of that night at university when we ran out of Rizla packets and were too lazy to look for more orthodox material.
I annotate books all the time — often heavily — but let's do it with respect, okay?


  • Somehow it just wouldn't be the same if he'd smeared jam on his book at the corner Starbucks.

  • My wife was reading the library copy of "Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin" by Cornelius Plantinga. The copy was messily underlined and annotated. At one point she looked up from the book to ask, "Isn't writing in library books a violation of shalom?"

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