Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Book Lists

Melinda just directed me to this site, which has a long list of interesting lists to write about books. I like this idea, and since this blog has been about books so much anyhow, thought it would be fun to incorporate every so often.

I'm going to start out with...

Books That Make Me Highlight Again

I have a kind of interesting personal history with book highlighting. For many years I was obsessively protective of my books - I read them opened very narrowly so that I wouldn't crack the spine, I was at pains to avoid food and water stains, and I never wrote in them.

I had a change of heart around the time I finished reading Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. This is my favorite book of all time, as I'm eager to explain to anyone who will listen, and I started reading it over the summer in Australia between my freshman and sophomore years of college. At the time, my habit was to use a blank piece of paper as a bookmark and whenever I came across a line or paragraph I wanted to remember, I would copy it onto the bookmark. Proust is rarely succinct, so I filled up pages and pages with tiny little writing of magnificent, life-changing quotations...all of which I lost somewhere in the move back to the States, either California or New York, I don't know. So I have no record of the particular phrases that I loved most in my favorite book, and Remembrance of Things Past is not a book that you decide to re-read lightly.

That was about when I decided that it was okay to write in books.

And then there's the Moby Dick debacle. This is a fun story, actually. I read Moby Dick while I was doing an intensive summer language program in Fez, Morocco, just before I started at Harvard. When I'm reading a book I try to carry it with me everywhere I go - you never know when you will end up having to wait around for something, or have a spare minute to read. I had traveled with a few other students to Chefchaouen, a city tucked into the Rif mountains in the north of Morocco. Tourists like to visit because the weather is temperate, and all the houses in the old city are painted an icy blue, which can be very charming and surreal.

I went with Ryan - a good friend I met at the language school, who recently moved to New York to start law school - on a hike up to the top of whatever the nearest mountain was. We had a guide, we had water, we had snacks, we had time - we were all set for a great hike. On the way up, Ryan said that he would hold my bag if he could put his own things in it; he did this a lot, since girls tend to carry bags and he had too many hiking supplies to fit into his pockets. So I handed the bag over and we climbed to the top of the mountain and it was lovely and we had a fantastic view and I like hiking, so that was wonderful.

On the way back down, when we were getting to the edge of the wilderness and nearing the old city again, Ryan admitted that when he'd taken my bag to put his things inside, he'd noticed that I was carrying Moby Dick and he thought it was kind of ridiculous to carry a gigantic book on a hike up a mountain, so he'd hidden it under a rock and planned to pick it up on the way back down. I knew what was going to happen the second he said this, and I felt sick to my stomach, but I held my tongue until we got back to the section of the trail where he'd stashed my book and he looked around, searched under every rock even remotely resembling the one he'd covered my book with, and discovered that it was gone.

I was 20 pages from being done with Moby Dick. 20 pages, and I had lovingly, carefully highlighted and commented all the way through. And I love Moby Dick - it's another one of my favorite books ever. And then, boom, all of that gone. That's my saddest highlighting story. I bought another copy when I got back to the states, but I'd lost my momentum (I finished it immediately, but the end of a long book can be so satisfying, and that was pretty much gone).

That's my saddest highlighting story.

Mostly, I highlight in books that I love, because I want to be able to go back and remember exactly what content in the book made an impression on me, and because I want to have a record of how I was reacting to the book as I read in a specific moment in time.

Then there are books where I highlighted a lot, but didn't really like the book. Djuna Barnes' Nightwood is a good example. How can you resist quotations like
She has the strength of an incomplete accident - one is always waiting for the rest of it, for the last impurity that will make the whole
God, children know something they can't tell: they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!
In some ways, quotations like this are the reason why I didn't like the book. It is packed with savage, clever, beautiful phrases - but the unremitting intensity, the brilliance of individual words, overshadowed the work as a whole for me. By the end I was exhausted, a little sickened, and my emotional engagement with the book had played out a while before.

The funnest category of highlighting is hate-highlighting. In Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, right next to the phrase
"Sometime around four o'clock that morning, for example, half-disentangled from the tulle of a dream..."
I scrawled,
"oh, please, YAWN."
A few pages later, in the same book, underneath

"He has thick, shining hair, glossy as a squirt of black paint,"
I wrote,
"chomp chomp."
On page 242 of Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy by Rudiger Safranski, next to this awful poem of Schopenhauer's (translated from the German so it might read better in the original, but in English it sounds as though it were written by a bitter, much-maligned seventeen year old):
From long-harboured deep-felt pain
It rose up out of my innermost heart.
To hold to it I struggled a long time:
But now I know I have succeeded.
Act now whatever way you please:
You cannot threaten my life's work.
You may delay it but cannot destroy it:
Posterity will raise a monument to me

I drew a picture of a donkey, with a little speech bubble reading "HEE HAW."

I should say that not all of my hate marginalia is silly or, you know, insulting in an unhelpful way.

Of course, there's also workhorse highlighting - highlighting for research, highlighting for exams, highlighting facts you will need to draw on later. I have no interesting stories about this kind of highlighting.

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