How Scribbling in the Margins Transformed My Reading

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Letter of Recommendation

This grounding signifier changed maine from a passive scholar into a thinker among different thinkers.

Credit...Photo illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban

Nov. 2, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

At immoderate constituent successful the past year, I bought a utilized transcript of “Camera Lucida.” In this slim text, the French literate theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes lays retired his mentation of photography arsenic a collaboration betwixt spectator and viewed, centered connected what Barthes calls the punctum: the (often marginal) item that leaps retired of an representation and “pricks” the spectator with a unusual and often inexplicable emotion.

Viewing a household representation from the 1920s, Barthes gazes astatine a middle-aged pistillate successful strapped pumps who helium abruptly realizes is wearing the nonstop benignant of braided golden necklace that erstwhile belonged to his unmarried aunt. The necklace belongs astatine erstwhile to the beingness of the pistillate and to his own. Therefore the punctum, arsenic Barthes writes, “is what I adhd to the photograph and what is nevertheless already there.”

In my copy, this past condemnation has been some underlined and bracketed. In the margins idiosyncratic has written “yes!” In fact, arsenic I work done the book, I discovered that connected each different leafage this erstwhile proprietor had recovered thing worthy noting, marking enactment aft enactment with a heavy pencil, listing retired Barthes’s arguments and leaving copious commentary. As I work Barthes’s book, I could not assistance speechmaking this different scholar arsenic well. I picked up my pencil and began to constitute alongside the phantom reader.

The wont was a caller 1 for me. Before the pandemic, I was not accustomed to penning successful books: My thoughts seemed truthful pitiful erstwhile enactment up against the words connected the page. The information of a publication spoke to a full concatenation of events — writing, selling, editing, printing — earlier which I felt unworthy.

But erstwhile New York City closed down successful March 2020, truthful did my consciousness of aforesaid and spot successful the world. For respective months I seldom near my flat different than to spot an ex oregon instrumentality agelong nighttime walks, erstwhile the metropolis was quiescent and nary 1 was connected the streets. The ambit of my satellite became nary larger than my neighborhood. I saw astir nary one, retained little, rewatched “The Silence of the Lambs” 4 times successful 2 months. Even my regular speechmaking became a self-defeating slog, full pages slipping by without my remembering them. My caput had go a sieve.

Every condemnation seemed much vivid, each connection much concrete, arsenic agelong arsenic I was penning on, over, astir it.

Sometime that summertime I picked up “The Old Child,” a novella by the German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck, which I was speechmaking successful mentation for an essay. It is simply a strange, opaque communicative astir a seemingly teen miss who is taken to an orphanage due to the fact that she refuses to speak. While surely not my favourite of Erpenbeck’s, it marks a displacement successful my speechmaking life: On Page 60, I marked a day — Feb. 13 — and past added an exclamation point. I made an asterisk connected the apical of the adjacent leafage and wrote, “Forgetting arsenic a benignant of protection.”

These are facile comments, which I consciousness embarrassed to share. But they are the archetypal notes I ever wrote successful a published book. When I picked up my adjacent book, I was underlining cardinal phrases, sectioning disconnected vivid paragraphs, notating the margins. Every condemnation seemed much vivid, each connection much concrete, arsenic agelong arsenic I was penning on, over, astir it. My marginalia became a bid of handholds connected the placid smoothness of the page. I took clasp of my regular acquisition 1 silly small people astatine a time.

Sometimes I underline immoderate is densest and astir hard successful a novel; sometimes immoderate is pretty, oregon ugly, oregon clumsy. I find my oculus drawn to peculiar phrases: the mode Flaubert describes the stiff, creased faces of “people of failed ambitions,” oregon Gillian Rose’s assertion that “there is nary ideology successful immoderate emotion relation: lone mercy.” Sometimes I adhd my ain notes successful the margins, though they are seldom of substance. Reading a aboriginal measurement of Proust amid a breakup, I filled the margins with uncomfortable ellipses, onomatopoetic groans and small else.

I privation I had profound thoughts to relate, but they don’t ever hap to maine astatine the clip of reading. My notes are similar the rings of a tree, trapping the ambiance of a fixed moment. Like Barthes’s necklace, their beingness lends acold much resonance than their existent content, due to the fact that they punctual maine of myself. What you bring to a enactment interacts with what is ever there, and what you bring changes each the time.

Wait agelong enough, and what you bring becomes the text. These notes are resonant due to the fact that they hole a person’s thoughts truthful thoroughly successful clip that they nary longer work arsenic your own. Why did I attraction truthful overmuch astir Feb. 13 oregon the protective qualities of forgetting? I truly don’t know. And yet, successful the summertime of 2020, some questions seemed truthful important that they changed my speechmaking habits completely: My notes transformed maine from a passive scholar into a thinker among different thinkers.

Reading backmost done “Camera Lucida” for this essay, I was not ever definite who made which mark, which of america near which note. Which were Barthes’s ideas, and which mine, and which the phantom reader’s? Does it matter? Both publication and marginalia are acts of writing, collaborations betwixt writer and subject, substance and scholar — precisely the benignant of communal-meaning making to which Barthes refers. We are each scribbling unneurotic successful the margins, hoping that, 1 day, our thoughts mightiness go a substance each their own.


Robert Rubsam is simply a freelance writer and critic. He past wrote for the mag astir bog bodies.

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