We have too much respect for the printed word, too little awareness of the power words hold over us. We allow worlds to be conjured up for us with very little concern for the implications. We overlook glaring incongruities. We are suckers for alliteration, assonance, and rhythm. We rejoice over stories, whether fiction or “documentary,” whose outcomes are flagrantly manipulative, self-serving, or both. Usually both.You know?--I think I agree with my brain but not my heart. Ostensibly, what Tim Brooks is talking about here in the New York Review of Books is fiction; but at the heart of the things he's saying is a whole way of life, the kind of life that packs a red pen. Like mine.
I wish it weren't so, but just about every book I've read in the last half century is marked up, scratched up, festooned with double and triple asterisks, underlined, doodled up, margin--alized. I swear it. I've got Kindles, and I read e-books; but if I couldn't underline and make notations on the screens, I'd never touch the technology.
I'm an English teacher, for pity sake, or once was. My profession is reading; I don't read because it's what I love; I read because it's what I do. I analyze madly without once thinking about whether or not it's appropriate. What comes into the echo chamber of my head doesn't go out unless it's mulled over, sliced up, and remarked upon. Right now it's the NPR book club choice, Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free. I've got the book on two Kindles, but where I read it doesn't matter. It's a mess of annotations. I really like the book. Seriously. But it's all marked up.
I can't help myself. I'm beyond hope. It's what I do.
If reading a hundred thousand student papers during 40-years of teaching English has taught me anything, it's a critical eye. Right from the get-go I'm sneering, unwilling to suspend my disbelief, ever ready to pounce. Honestly, I read critically. I think critically. It's what I do. ALL. THE. TIME.
So I'm not one of those blessed--as my wife is--with the capacity to simply lose oneself in a story. Years ago already, I found it amazing--no, distressing--to lose her to a novel when I was the one who taught literature and, on a good day, even created it. I'm not sure it's true of everyone so blessed with red pen, but because I have one constantly in my hands when I read, but I can be easily distracted because I don't lose myself. Never. I'm always judging, always outside the material, always outside.
Sermons too. I swear it. I can't help myself. Lord, have mercy. It's a way of life.
Tim Parks' little New York Review of Books essay is titled "A Weapon for Readers" because he's proud of his own penchant for marginalia and convinced that those who don't mark up their books are themselves the death of Western culture.
I'm not so sure. I say carrying a red pencil in life is a both a blessing AND a curse. There are times when I envy (yet another of the Seven Deadlies) those who can sail through books or sermons or life itself so uncritically. We have friends, good friends, who are real flower children even though so conservative they could never have been hippies. They just love well, you know? Isn't that sweet? They could have Mussolini for a preacher, and they'd walk out of church sporting ear-to-ear smiles.
Must be nice.
I make notes. All the time. I judge.
Maybe now that I retire I'll mature, put away the pen, smile more.
Maybe. Maybe someday a Peterbilt full of Iowa hogs'll take wing.