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.