Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Underlining Truth

"There is only one journey. Going inside yourself..." --Rainer Maria Rilke

I bought a book I had been wanting to read for a long time the other day. It was secondhand , but in good overall condition. However, when I set upon reading it , I noticed with some annoyance that it's previous owner had underlined many lines and passages in the first half of the book. It's not so much for the aesthetic marring of the pages that this bothers me , so much as the fact that as I read along I always pay special attention to what was underlined. After all, if it was important enough for the previous reader to take pen in hand, it must be more significant than the other stuff. As I went along though, it seem to me that most of the marked passages were random, oddball, and not in any obvious way to me more relevant than unmarked passages. I began to wonder about this reader. Here was an eloquent work with pearls of wisdom sliding by left and right, and yet the oddest, almost throwaway items were being tagged as significant. I began to make a mental profile of Reader X. I determined that he/she was probably a student forced to read the book and really didn't know what to look for. Reader X could not have had much of a feel for the work because only half of the book was marked up, and hey, they sold it off to a used bookstore, so there could not have been much of a bond there. As I pushed on into the parts that Reader X had left unmarked I'd come across some stray item that seemed random enough to have been underlined by their busy pen, and I would laugh to myself that they missed out on that one.

And then it occurred to me. There really was no telling what this reader had in mind. The stuff that I considered important might seem as offbeat to them as theirs seemed to me. They might have been at a level of journey were they needed those particular thoughts to help them along. Or perhaps they were so far in their journey that they saw relevance in things that I could not. I am not much of an under liner myself by habit, but I wondered if I re-read a book that I had underlined passages in, say, ten years ago, would those items still be the most significant things in that work to me? I think we are often exposed to things when it is not time for us to "see" them and they have a tendency to "bounce off." I had read Christ say "Let he who has ears hear," for years before I finally had "ears" to really here what He had to say. So it was not right to judge poor Reader X too harshly. In fact, I paid closer attention to things I would have glanced through otherwise, and perhaps had a fuller, more rounded read of the subject matter than I otherwise would have.

And at least Reader X didn't use a highlighter pen... Those are just annoying!


Brer said...

How often I have had this same experience with second-hand books! It's like being on the same bus ride with a stranger, who makes random remarks on what's going past outside the window. Sometimes they draw you attention to something you might have missed.

There is an entire book, dedicated to the copious and amusing annotations that G. K. Chesterton made to an otherwise forgotten volume by some social theorist he disagreed with.

And I agree that there are certain times that a book is suddenly right for you. I have many works in my library that I've been knocking at their doors, waiting to be let in. Really good works often repay periodic re-reads as the years go by--but now I'm just starting to repeat what you've said already!

By the way, aren't the word verification nonsense words sometimes wonderfully poetic and evocative? This one is "ourgion", which I find intriguingly suggestive.

Brer said...

Rilke was wrong...there are only two journeys...going inside yourself, and shopping for Christmas presents. Both will show you things you never dreamed existed or cared to know.