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When reading books, I pay attention to marginalia. Amazed, I touch inscriptions, notes and scribbles with my finger. As someone who has scribbled in books myself, I spend extra time on sections that the doodles relate to. Though my side notes shifted from thinking on the page to celebrating beauty after graduation. Around the edges, my signature movements are hearty sentences and drawing lines next to passages that I love.
Last year I texted other bibliophiles to ask if they were writing their books. To my surprise, everyone said no, except for my soul sister, who sometimes marks and underlines text with pencil. Of course, guilt and shame were answered immediately. Suddenly my pen began to stutter next to breathtaking words.
First I stopped writing in hardcover, then paperback prose, then poetry. Before April 2, I stopped using marginalia and started using sticky flags instead, which also makes me feel guilty if I dwell on it. The last book I pecked at was Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers by Jake Skeets. One exception: during the Sealey Challenge, I drew a heart in Layli Long Soldier’s WWHEAS while waiting for more post-its.
Over a decade ago, on a sunny college afternoon at Schuler Books, I was sitting on the patio making vitamin D and writing definitions for new words alongside thick text. It took forever to finish a page. At some point I gave up knowing every word and took up the meaning of familiar ones. Does marginalia get such a bad reputation? People associate it with required reading and pop quizzes, formal essays and caffeine-filled nights, and they want to put as much distance as possible between them and those memories.
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Looking back at the texts I didn’t trade in at the university bookstore as soon as possible, I kept two marginal books to feature on. There is nothing like being shamed in front of a classroom full of coworkers to scare you into a thorough study.
For a bachelor’s degree project on writing style, I riddled my copy of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros with notes on alliteration, figurative language, gender, and repetition. I have underlined beautiful sentences with a pen. Judging by the generous attention given by my writing instrument, I feel that “Hairs” and “My Name” made me feel less alone in the world.
At a graduate poetry workshop, my partner and I led the class discussion for Lighthead by Terrance Hayes. My paperback contains paragraphs in italics from first impressions to detailed research. With a pencil, I asked questions in spaces. I’ve circled words. Some rhyme like capsized and sideways, others don’t, like weight, fire and light. At the end of the pages I wrote down words: dreams (three times), blue (twice), passage, shadow, alligator.
Rereading these books feels like opening a time capsule. Between the pages a six-page draft of a newspaper that ends with “In the last vignette”, a boarding pass from San Francisco to Pittsburgh and a receipt for an Ohio Panera Bread. A sky-blue Post-it with two dull lines that never spun into a poem is in a book flap.
Even though part of me is screaming: Destroy these lines and this English task, I feel no trace of guilt when I’m younger. I want to wave wildly to myself, blow kisses and put all the money in my wallet so I can buy more books of poetry and have dinner instead of old, limp fries from the basket in the hot window and filling molds of soup while my bartenders -Layers.
Even when our school days are over, our learning continues. As my dream dictionary emphasizes: “Life is school”. Dreaming is school. Reading pleasure is school – a kind of independent study. Whether I love a book or not, everything I read teaches me, so why not scribble on the pages of my personal collection? Marginalia is proof that I am here, that I was present and that I am growing.
After 14 long months with no marginalia, I am getting out of this phase and I realize that the universe is directing me in the direction of my heart. Craft in the Real World has been waiting for Blue, my high-priority reading table, since February, and I know in the soul of my reader that my fingers will ache after every click pen under the moon as I read Matthew Salesse’s book. So far I have completed two essays published on Literary Hub and No Tokens and they filled my eyes with tears. I nodded and wiggled my brain. I have saved quotes I have come to love. I shared the pieces with teacher friends.
While shopping online in March, I ordered an earlier copy of Picture Bride from Eastwind Books of Berkeley. When it arrived I opened Cathy Song’s first collection of poems and it was teeming with notes in the margin. Someone numbered the lines of “Primary Colors” and bracketed marine shells at the end of “Easter: Wahiawa, 1959”: “The scattering of the delicate / marine shells on his lap / was like what the ocean gives / the beach after a rain. ”Both the book and I are virgins and love Hawaii. It felt like a nod from the galaxy.
I’ve been rereading Inheritance’s opening poem lately. In “Since I Quit This Internet Service”, Taylor Johnson writes: “As close as when I got up, take a deep breath as I came to the lines of all fearless happiness / from which my life proceeds, I sing – and find it underlined from a beloved stranger. It’s like turning the record over. To know that you hear what I hear. ”
All of this to say that any guilt for my marginality is gone. I see myself reaching for my stack of books and a pen, a lover of a stranger but mostly a lover to myself.