Maybe it’s because of my day-job, but you’ll never find me with a pen in my hand if I’m reading a book. Playing every day in an orchestra means a large turnover of music with new pieces to be learnt quickly: our usual format is two days rehearsal and then a concert, although we can sometimes squeeze in one day’s rehearsal for a concert. The point is that you always need to mark your music with conductor’s directions, personal reminders or a witty anagram of the composer’s name. The golden rule is “no ink.”
Particularly with hired music, where there’ll be stern instructions from the publisher to only use a soft lead pencil in making marks. Someone else, somewhere else in the world will be playing these parts next week and mightn’t agree with the conductor’s interpretation or your witty asides. Using a soft pencil means a part can be returned to a near-virgin state after a few seconds with an eraser and some elbow-grease.
So when I’m reading a book I’ll always have a pencil in my hand. And yes, I have to confess to being a margin scribbler. I always try to enter a dialogue with a writer rather than just be a passive consumer of his or her ideas. If something reminds me of another book or concept I’ll write a note. At other times a simple exclamation mark at the side of a passage is all that’s needed to express knowing displeasure at an idea, or, if I really disagree, a lengthy “but…” rebuttal works it’s way down the margin to the bottom of the page.
Call me old-fashioned (I rarely am) but it’s an honourable tradition. The great Irish satirist Brian O’Nolan, who wrote as Myles na gCopaleen in The Irish Times from 1940 to 1960, offered a “book handling service” for Dublin’s culturally insecure nouveau riche to make them appear well-read.
“De Luxe Handling – Each volume to be mauled savagely, the spines of the smaller volumes to be damaged in a manner that will give the impression that they have been carried around in pockets, a passage in every volume to be underlined in red pencil with an exclamation or interrogation mark inserted in the margin opposite, an old Gate Theatre programme to be inserted in each volume as a forgotten bookmark … not less than 30 volumes to be treated with old coffee, tea, porter or whiskey stains, and not less than five volumes to be inscribed with forged signatures of the authors … Dog ears extra and inserted according to instructions … Quotations for alternative old Paris theatre programmes on demand.”
What’s not honourable – and again call me old fashioned – is the modern scourge of the fluorescent highlighter, which never seems to be applied with the relative sensitivity of the Myles na gCopaleen’s Book-Handling Service, rather with the wild abandon of a decorator who needs to use up a few tins of Magnolia.
However indebted I am to websites like Amazon, Alibris and Abebooks, which along with my nose for a bargain have facilitated a growing Politics and International Relations library, I am sometimes disappointed by the sellers’ vague descriptions, like “acceptable” or “like new.” I’ve developed my own sliding scale of acceptability based on past purchases. “Some damage to the spine” is okay, but “some highlighting” demands careful consideration and “extensive highlighting” has me clicking my mouse somewhere else.
Often highlighting isn’t flagged and a book arrives with pink or luminous yellow paragraphs. And I think what was the point? How did your engagement with the writer benefit by colouring in rectangles of text? Maybe highlighting the odd term or important phrase might have helped when re-reading, but if you thought an idea was important then why didn’t you say so in the margins? And if you thought the idea was daft then why didn’t you say so in the margins? In pencil. With soft lead. Crikey, I am old-fashioned.