The Reader’s Marginal Notes

When she was young, every book changed her life. The early pleasures of Just So Stories, Treasure Island, awakened her imagination. As she matured, she delighted in biographies and memoirs, non-fiction: Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan; books about animals, Africa. Whatever caught her fancy. Books spoke to her; she began speaking back. She underlined favorite passages; wrote one, two, or three exclamation points in the margins. Her book-notating evolved into more personal marginalia: brackets instead of underlining (keeping to the margins, the text itself sacrosanct); checks beside the brackets of especially enlightening passages; ellipses indicating her ambivalence toward the writer’s ideas. She continued reading books – histories, essay collections, the classics – because she loved books, a constant as she left home, spent her twenties in colleges and began a life and an occupation that involved books. Books added initials to her name (MA, ABD, PhD), laid a foundation for her identity, for what paid the mortgage, for conferences and sabbaticals. Her reading in ethics and philosophy prompted more marginalia: abbreviations (“c.f. Lucretius,” “e.g. F’s Civilization/Discontents“) connecting writers across the centuries. She asked questions of the text, questions that stood unanswered in the margins.

One night, she set down her glass and randomly pulled a hardback from the top shelf, surprised at how yellow the pages had grown. She flipped from page to page, read her comments. She pulled three more books from various shelves, sat back down in her reading chair, drew the lamp closer. The writing, her writing, seemed distant, as if from a separate being, a formerly close friend she’d grown up with. Later, unable to sleep, images came to mind: the sad gray eyes of the first man whose proposal she’d declined, his photoless obit three years past; the thin cotton smock she’d worn during her abortion, the child that would have graduated college by now; the sideways smile of the woman, a former student, who had pursued her.

She continued reading, continued learning, continued marking her books, but fewer and fewer passages merited comment. So little of what she read told her anything she didn’t already know. She sought out books by writers older than she, seeking the wisdom of age, but those writers were few. Her marginal notes now reflected her own idiosyncratic style: two, three, or four slash marks had replaced the overly dramatic, naïve exclamation points of her youth; brackets with and without a check inside them, which even she might have had trouble explaining. Her neat print gave way to shaky, sloppy cursive, as if desperate, or drinking, or stuck under the covers of a cold evening, her one free arm restricted. Toward the end, she read young, current writers who would be replacing her in the world, popular novelists who had little to say to her, and she had less to say back. There is no evidence of her in the margins of the last books she read, books which resemble all the other books in which no one wrote.

This story was published in the Eunoia Review in June, 2015.

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