Monday, December 09, 2013

`As the Random Fancy or the Feeling Directs'

Marginalia permits us to commune with our younger selves, to peer over the shoulder of that teasingly familiar and alien creature, to mingle with our annotator as he blinks between first and third person in our minds. I no longer mark up books. Instead, I write comments on separate sheets of paper that I insert in the volume, a practice I started in the fall of 1972 while reading Ulysses for the second time. To read notes and underlinings from forty years ago, however, is at once touching and comically embarrassing. My oldest copy of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy is a Penguin paperback dated “6-18-72.” I remember buying it at the long-defunct Kay’s Books on Prospect Avenue in Cleveland. I was nineteen. The pages now are brown and the text is densely and uselessly over-underlined. I had read Tristram Shandy for the first time in an eighteenth-century English novel class a few months earlier and fallen in love.  

In the preface, which Sterne in effect makes the seventh chapter, I’ve placed a vertical line down the right margin of the first paragraph and written “Locke.” I’ve underlined the final phrases – “…we lie under so many impediments to communicating our sensations out of our own sphere, as often amount to a total impossibility.” Beside this I write “Beckett” – evidence of another recently acquired literary enthusiasm. Such marks are meaningless now, but at the time I think they amounted to laying claim to turf, staking out foreign territory, planting a flag and making it mine. Several pages later in the chapter titled “The Remise Door,” I underline, in a spirit of Sternean self-referentiality, “with a look which  I thought a sufficient commentary upon the text.” I had also recently read Pale Fire for the first time. In another chapter, titled “The Remise,” I underline “to make love the first moment, and an offer of his person the second,” and write “—in the coach, like Emma Bovary.” I was an insufferably bookish young man. Later notes refer to Cervantes, Borges, Smollett, David Hume, Gogol and Shakespeare. With an asterisk and underlining I mark what remains my favorite line in Sterne’s novel: “I think there is a fatality in it—I seldom go to the place I set out for.” 

In Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (Yale University Press, 2001), H.J. Jackson writes: “We would do well to consider the example of the sociable readers of the eighteenth century and later who shared their annotated books and looked on readers’ notes as value added.” Rereading my old markings, I think of Charles Lamb’s essay, “The TwoRaces of Men,” in which he comically complains of the marks left in his books when he loans them to his childhood friend Coleridge, a chronic marginalia-ist. On this date, Dec. 9, in 1796, Charles Lamb writes to Coleridge, as I might write to my younger book-marking self: 

There is a pensive state of recollection, in which the mind is disposed to apostrophise the departed objects of its attachment, and, breaking loose from grammatical precision, changes from the 1st to the 3rd, and from the 3rd to the 1st person, just as the random fancy or the feeling directs.”

1 comment:

Buce said...

A biographer--probably Joseph Ellis--of John Adams has a knowing account of Adams' library. He says Adams, always argumentative, would write long and detailed dissents in the margins of his books. And would keep them. Which is to say, if you judged his tastes by his library, you would have gotten entirely the wrong impression, because he seemed to treasure most the books he agreed with least.