Reading Between – and Outside of – the Lines

By Jason Menard

Sometimes the best stories that a book can tell aren’t found in the text – it’s what’s in the margins that makes for the most interesting read.

I have a thing for old books. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t own a Kindle – there’s something about physically holding a book, turning its pages, brushing off the dust, and inhaling the familiar old-book scent, that an electronic version will never be able to match.

The one thing a Kindle will never do is give you the story behind the story.

I recently picked up a copy of The Great Gatsby at a book exchange. I’ve read it before, so it wasn’t the title itself that drew me to it – it was the book itself. Best as I can figure, this is a mid-50’s edition paperback, so it’s a must-add to my collection.

But what made this addition even better was not just the presence of hand-written notes in the margins, but a yellowing sheet of observations shoved in the middle of the text.

For me, that’s even better than the book itself. Instantly, one is taken back to our school days where we frantically scrawled in the margins the key phrases that our teachers wanted parroted back to us. We frantically searched for examples of the key concepts being taught and hoped we could adequately justify our arguments.

This book? Well, the reader’s enthusiasm quickly waned. The first dozen or so pages are marked up to the nth degree – blocks of text underlined and tied to phrases like “detachment objectivity” and “understanding of self.”

The remainder of the book? Well, let’s just say that I don’t think she was responsible for the cracking on the spine.

And, yes, I’m sure it’s a she. The notes are written in that familiar cursive of our grandmothers’ generation. It seems the people born in the first couple of decades of the 20th century all were taught the exact same way to write, so it’s easy to identify penmanship from that generation. In fact, that penmanship never wavers – at least until the women of that age are no longer able to write.

The yellowing insert, which had been stuck so long between the pages that it caused them to stain, offers a comparison of this book and its themes to those expressed in Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

I have a number of books that feature this type of annotation. And they’re always interesting to read. Some are poignant, while some are downright hilarious in their irony (I once bought a copy of Paul Reiser’s Couplehood, mainly due to the fact that the inscription inside indicated that the book was a gift to a new couple – I guess despite the well-wishes, the fact that this book ended up in a used book store didn’t bode well for the relationship.)

I wish I made more notes in my own books. Unfortunately, I’m one of those who has always liked to keep my books – so I try to keep them in as good of shape as possible. That means no writing in the margins. But I’d love to see how dumb I actually was in high school; to compare my thoughts and beliefs back then with what I know now as an adult.

Much to my wife’s chagrin, we have a few too many books at home. It’s not that she dislikes books – in fact, she may be an even more avid reader than I am – it’s just that I collect them like lonely spinsters collect cats. I have a hard time not bringing one home if it’s left alone. Our bookshelves are overflowing and I’ve got boxes stored away of other books, just waiting for a home.

But when you keep finding stories within the stories, how can I stop? What can I say? I love reading between – and outside of – the lines.

1 thought on “Reading Between – and Outside of – the Lines

  1. Dave Mitchell

    I’d like to offer up a sad little supporting story.

    Over the last 4 years I’d struggled to make my way through a battered old copy of Atlas Shrugged that I would only read when I travelled. Sometimes I theorized it was because I need to be detached from the workforce in order to deal with the conflicts it would stir inside me, other times I think it was the option of being able to drink something after chewing my way through a chapter (difficult on a lunch break).

    Sorry, distracted myself. So this year, having seen the physical state of the book decline drastically I opted to scan and convert to ePub format the remaining 5th of the book. The plan was to read it on my phone while vacationing in the Dominican. Now I’m no stranger to reading e-books. My first was in re-digesting the Dickens and Bronte classics on my Psion 3a in 1995. Then it was the 2nd Harry Potter book in 1999 on my Psion 5. After that Return of the King on a PocketPC in 2001. But it wasn’t until the last couple years that the e-reading software I was using would actually allow me to annotate while I read. And it wasn’t until I got into e-reading Atlas Shrugged that I really wanted to use it. It just made me feel better tapping in my thoughts just as I had done with the prior 4/5ths of my dead tree copy, even once I think I described it as a post-humus debate with Ayn.

    And here is the sad part of the story. After the trip to the Dominican, I decided to upgrade my phone. Having not quite finished, I copied the file over to the new device. As I started to read again on my recent vacation I went to go back and look at those annotations. I was at first not surprised when they weren’t there, suspecting a software compatibility issue. But upon returning home I discovered that the annotations are not even stored in the document but instead an overlay from a separate file. A file I no longer had. All those world changing thoughts… Gone.

    I guess on the bright side, though it would take me a few days to sort the physical pages back into order, those 4/5ths at still there, binding that book into what I consider to be My Copy. 10 years from now, if I choose to subject myself to another round of abuse I will still have My Copy.


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