By Elena Bellaart
It’s a hotly debated subject among English majors and book lovers (right up there with “Can Leo turn Gatsby into an Oscar?” and “Why did Edith Wharton think attempted suicide by sled made sense as a plot device?”) – How do you treat your books? And the results vary dramatically, from rabidly protective to alarmingly nonchalant. Many a casual literary chat has turned nasty at the topic of dog-earing pages. And I know I’m not the only one who feels slightly scandalized when people take sharpies to my favorite books to create “blackout poems.” Why are people so particular about their books? What’s going on psychologically that makes us cringe whenever a teacher issues an assignment that involves annotation?
At heart, this seems to be a question of how we understand our relationship with the written word. And that has a lot to do with our basic definitions of reading itself (a familiar topic for any Chernin students this semester, I know). If we understand reading as a kind of inviolate sacrament, it makes sense for us to feel somehow blasphemous when we write in margins. Like we’re defiling something sacred. On the other hand, if we understand the written word as a relationship, a conversation, an exchange of ideas between writer and reader, the concept of marking a book becomes a physical manifestation of our participation in that relationship. It becomes something kind of exciting.
Of course, these views aren’t always mutually exclusive. And maybe in the grand scheme of things, whether or not we dog-ear our books isn’t exactly a cosmic question. But our understanding of the written word does have implications for what we can then do with the written word. In my Language and Power class last semester (which I highly recommend!), we examined the degree to which language controls how we think and understand the world. (Spoiler: it’s a lot.) In the most Orwellian sense, it seems profoundly true that language can be used in our favor, as an expression of individual thought, only when we are willing to be a little daring and a little irreverent. To truly own language and use it as a tool of expression, we have to understand it as a relationship that we can actively challenge and participate in.
That doesn’t mean that anyone who feels reluctant to underline their favorite books lacks the intellectual intensity of an avid annotator. It also doesn’t make the aesthetic awfulness of a blackout poem made from the last page of The Great Gatsby any less awful. But on a symbolic level, I think it’s an important consideration that forces us to examine how comfortable we are pushing back against the ideas that we read.