Friday, August 22, 2008

On Making Notes in Books

A scout and friend recently brought in a nice hardcover of a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor. If you don't know him, Fermor is Britain's greatest living travel writer. At 18 he walked the length of Europe. During WWII, he helped organize the Resistance in Greece, a country he loves and where he still lives. The book we got across the Used Books Desk was "Mani: Travels in the South Peloponnese." Of course we bought it. Patrick Leigh Fermor in hardcovers!

Having put the rather delicate dust-jacket into a mylar cover, and priced the book, only then did I think to "thumb" the pages. (Flipping through the book quickly to check for damage or markings is "thumbing.") Disaster! I'd seen that the previous owner had a long dedication, in ink, on the title page. Not good, but oh well. Then I saw the underlining... and the notes... and the notes in Greek! Obviously the last reader read only the first chapter or two, as that was where all these deep pencil markings were. Such is often the case. And true, all this scribbling was in pencil, but it was a broad, thick line, as if made by a very determined second grader with a very big pencil.

Lots of people annotate their books. Some make the lightest little checks in pencil. Then there are those, usually students, who highlight almost every paragraph in turn, thus entirely defeating the point of "highlighting" a passage to remember and rendering whole pages neon pink or yellow. (Unless it's a textbook you can sell back to your school, know that if you do this, you might as well throw the book away when you're done wrecking it with ink and magic markers.) Then there are the scholars for whom any blank page, including the inside of the covers and the endpapers, are just so much convenient space to records such deep thoughts as "flower image pg. 139" or "pick up groceries/laundry/mom's prescription." Finally, there are the people who make "dog ears" by folding down the corner of the page. People who dog ear tend, it seems, to read in increments of no more than ten pages at a time, thus a four hundred page novel, when dogeared, swells like a corpse left out in the sun. Not attractive. Not something we can sell.

So, the Fermor is no longer a valuable book, but it's still one I haven't read. Maybe I'll buy it at cost and spend a few hours erasing the evidence. And maybe not.

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