marginalia: Blue Highways: A Journey into America

He may have thought I was joking, but here I am, writing about the highlights, marking, and marginalia of Matt Ferrence in the copy of Blue Highways that he gifted me. (Reviewed here last week in two parts.)

thanks, buddy.

We’ve exchanged some text messages as I read the book, and I’ve found it interesting to see where Matt marked (rarely where I was moved to), and where I thought the earth shook and Matt made no note at all. Not once did we mark the same lines. Go figure. I’m also intrigued to hear that he’s tried to teach this book to writing students who were left cold. I wish I could be in that class; I wish I could be that class; I wish I could co-teach that class!

If I buy a used book and it comes to me with someone else’s markings in it, I’m annoyed. It changes the way I read the book; someone else’s signal of what is and is not important gets in my way. This was different, though. Rather than a stranger, this was the hushed voice of a fellow writer I like and respect, nodding to me. I’m curious to see how he reads. There are highlighted sections; there are (only a few) marginal notes; and there are a number of dog-ears marking those pages that show highlighting or notes, but not all marked pages are dog-eared. I don’t know if that’s significant, or an oversight.

For comparison, this is what it looks like when I take notes:

Matt does not believe that Heat-Moon recorded all the dialog faithfully; he thinks that a lot of dialog reads in Heat-Moon’s own voice. (But he carried a microcassette recorder! I am most curious at this accusation! Matt also highlighted “I played a tape recording of the last few days and made notes.”) My favorite page marking is the one that reads, large in highlighter at the top of the page, Monks! (Exclamation mark!) Monks, indeed!

Matt (teacher of creative nonfiction writing) highlighted the phrase at the beginning of a sentence on page 131: “I’m an authority because…” and oh, the richness of that assertion. Classes have been taught on the voice of authority and the way a narrator achieves authority over a given subject. Hint: rarely does he claim it outright.

I love these highlighted lines:

What is it in man that for a long while lies unknown and unseen only one day to emerge and push him into a new land of the eye, a new region of the mind, a place he has never dreamed of? Maybe it’s like the force in spores lying quietly under asphalt until the day they push a soft, bulbous mushroom head right through the pavement. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Amazing. The inexorability of soft forces.

Matt highlights the line, mid-paragraph: “He was starting to ruin Cave Creek.” A man has visited Heat-Moon’s camp, unexpectedly and, it turns out, unwelcomed. Usually our narrator welcomes company, but this man is a complainer, and ruins the idyllic natural setting. I hadn’t remarked it without the help of this pink highlighter mark, but now it reminds me of the travels of Huck and Jim on the Mississippi, and how the river was always a place of calm and safety, while anytime they went inland and interacted with humans, they ran into trouble. “Man,” as Heat-Moon would have it, ruins what is desirable about the state of nature.

I’m glad I got this copy of this book. I learned some things. As Heat-Moon writes (and Matt marks):

I can’t say, over the miles, that I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.

And maybe that’s always the most instructive thing.

Liz’s Pinterest from The Son

I once wrote about how I keep a piece of scratch paper as a bookmark, one sheet dedicated to each book, for keeping notes: page numbers for referral or quotation, words to look up, thoughts that belong in my review. My coworker (who has contributed to this blog several times), Liz, read that post, and says she thought it a great system. Now, lately, Liz has been telling me about reading The Son, by Philipp Meyer. Set in the American southwest, The New York Times calls it a “multigenerational family saga spanning the years from 1836 to 2012,” one of those “greatest of historical novels… we come to feel both the distance of the past and our own likely complicity in the sins of a former age, had we been a part of it.” (High praise!) Apparently Liz has been making a number of notes on historical terms and references that she needed to look up – and she’s gone a step well beyond my vocabulary lessons, and created a visual collection of those notes on Pinterest.

I’m not on Pinterest at this time – too many things to keep up with! – but it’s an attractive way to see what she’s learning… what do you think? Anybody else have any Pinterest pages based on books out there? (Silly question, I know! Do share!)

notes on Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

young men and fireI decided to do a whole separate post (because my review was… long) sharing my notes as I read this book. As I’ve said before, I like to use a scrap of blank paper as a bookmark because I can takes notes on it. Often these are words I’m unfamiliar with, with page numbers, so I can look them up and reread them in their context; quotations with page numbers; or notes of concepts I want to include in a review. Some books fill a quarter-page piece of scrap paper with notes; some have 2-3 notes; a fair minority of the time, I can get all the way through a book with no notes at all and write a review from memory.

Young Men and Fire filled 3 quarter-page scraps of paper and part of a 4th, and I was writing very small. So I wanted to share these notes here. I’ve expanded them slightly to explain to you what I was noting; but still they are basically marginalia. [My page numbers refer to the 1992 hardback from the University of Chicago Press that I got from my local library.] I also left off a few that turned out to be less interesting avenues of pursuit, or that turned out to be personal.

  • author photo: this V.C. Wald 1981 portrait of Maclean in a boat, looking down, is evocative for me and I love it. (see bottom of post)
  • Ehrlich & Dillard blurbs: on the back of the book (among others). Gretel Ehrlich is one of those I had never heard of til I had, and now I see her everywhere. Dillard is one I’ve heard lots about, and it’s finally time for me to read her.
  • like The Perfect Storm: science, weather, geography – actually like it in subject too
  • takes his reader in hand to guide her on this together-journey
  • “left a world that is still burned out.” 86
  • “a mystery of the universe is how it has managed to survive with so much volunteer help.” 112 (having worked with volunteers, and been a volunteer myself, I found this quite apt and funny.)
  • great comments on human nature 114-15. “…most people think they can be of help, and some even seem born to rescue others, as poets think they are.”
  • stations of the cross (a concept that I had to look up: I am unapologetic about being an atheist, but regret a little how uneducated I am in the religions that I don’t believe in)
  • Custer: turns out to be a subject of sort of secondary obsession for Maclean. apparently The Norman Maclean Reader includes his unpublished notes on Custer that were headed for being their own book. I am looking into this.
  • poem 201: I had to look up a poem that was quoted without attribution; it turned out to be “In Flanders Fields” by Colonel John McCrae.
  • “I added a final truism for myself, ‘True poems are hard to find.'” 202
  • “Beer doesn’t seem to do much to remove dehydration, but it makes it easier to admit error.” … “We were too tired to sit down in the shade, if there was any, so we put the plastic bag with the rest of the beer between us on the hot hood of the engine. We figured, since beer couldn’t take away dehydration, we might as well drink it warm.” 209. What I can say, I guess I collect literary quotations about beer.
  • sewing machines 214. The scene described is one in which the smokejumpers play a game of volleyball, watched by visitors from The General Public, who are surprised the smokejumpers are “not as big as the Minnesota Vikings,” and after the game is over, “to the ever-increasing surprise of the visitors, would sit in front of sewing machines and peacefully mend their parachutes. They were very skillful with their sewing machines and damn well better have been, since their lives hung on their parachutes.” This one is for my mother, who not only collects sewing machines but also uses them. She also collects instances of the intersection of manliness and sewing machines – not as rare as you might think, it turns out. (She still has not gotten Husband onto one.)
  • this story in Fire Season? and Jumping Fire? note to self to go and check on the Mann Gulch’s appearance(s) in the two books; I’m sure it must be there…
  • story 214-15: a brief anecdote I appreciated, told by Hal Samsel
  • “…a storyteller should never look at a day as lost if he has learned something about how to tell stories, especially about how to make them shorter.” (which is a lesson Maclean learns from Hal, above.) 215
  • Ancient Age 216: a brand of bourbon that I confess I had to look up (I like Knob Creek myself, if you’re taking notes)
  • I begin to see clearly that I favor those authors who booze. Hemingway, Abbey, Burke, and Maclean, I’m looking at you.
  • math 229-30 and on… another note for my mother, who is a math person (geometry particularly) and might appreciate this discussion of math, its challenges, and its value, not to mention the math itself, complete with charts and graphs, that helps explain the Mann Gulch fire
  • Black Larry: the real-life character in Fire Season who recommended I read this book. make a note to send him a note.
  • silviculture 247: from the US Forest Service: “Silviculture is the art and science of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health and quality of forests and woodlands to meet the diverse needs and values of landowners and society on a sustainable basis.” Maclean uses it in a way that suggests an earlier meaning (at least to him), of the science of controlling forests to meet the needs of loggers, which is not really the same thing as the above definition.
  • anemometer 248: An instrument for measuring the speed of the wind, or of any current of gas.
  • Phil Connors – management – Rothermel – 256: another note to check Fire Season for reference to a man named Rothermel who helped rework the Forest Service’s policies on managing fires rather than just always fighting them. again, I’m sure it’s in there.
  • (back to The Perfect Storm) as I remember it, Junger never addresses much his own strengths or weaknesses with the technical aspect of his research, that is, the science. Maclean does; he pokes fun at his limits with math. This brings in his own personality & amuses me. Also Junger never becomes a character until his final comments(?), whereas Maclean is a major character, necessarily, throughout.
  • “All of us have the privilege to choose what we wish to visualize as the edge of reality. Either tier of crosses allows us to picture the dead as dying with their boots on. On some of the bodies all but the boots were burned off. If you have lived a life that has thrown you in contact many times with nature, you have already discovered that sometimes you can deal with nature only by allowing it to push back what until now you and others thought were its edges.” 277
  • elements – title: I discussed this in my book review, how Maclean adds “young men” to our list of the elements, normally four: earth, air, fire, and water. thus the title of the book.

As you can see, this book inspired many ruminations in me, some still unfinished.

Many thanks to Veronica Wald for sharing this on her blog! It’s worth clicking the link above for the story of the iconic photo.

I confess, I’m jumping on board: The Great Gatsby, the movie.

I do have some reservations; but I am cautiously excited about the new Gatsby movie.

I bought a second paperback copy of the novel and gave it to my movie buddy Justin to read before we go. (Husband doesn’t do movies.) I had to buy Justin a copy because it turns out that my copy, which dates from high school, is hideously marked up: one of my high school English teachers had us turn in our books to be graded on how entirely we had defaced them with highlighter and margin notes. I got a 100 on The Great Gatsby, which means it’s entirely unacceptable for me to hand over to a first-time reader. I’m just glad I noticed before he took it home with him. [I’ve discussed marginalia here before. In a nutshell, I’m not a big fan.]

So, Justin has a copy of the book, and we will be seeing the movie. I’ve read that it’s not a perfect match – and when is a movie ever a perfect match to the book? The right strategy, I think, is to know and accept that going in. Hopefully we can do this, and enjoy Leonardo DiCaprio and all the glitz and glamour.


It does look very pretty.

As an added bonus, Shelf Awareness published a fun piece the other day, in honor of BookExpo America: Gatsby’s New York. Great fun there.

So stay tuned for a movie review to come! Ideally I would have found time to reread the book myself. But I’ll just have to go on the strength of multiple rereadings of years ago – and Justin’s recent experience.

Anybody else excited about this one?

further response on Marginalia

Well! Wouldn’t you know. Coincidentally… do you believe in coincidence? Maurice Blanche, mentor to Maisie Dobbs, says that coincidence is the messenger of truth… but coincidentally, my Shelf Awareness email of the day opens with the following quotation from NPR’s Andrei Codrescu:

I’m reading a new book I downloaded on my Kindle and I noticed an underlined passage. It is surely a mistake, I think. This is a new book. I don’t know about you, but I always hated underlined passages in used books…. And then I discovered that the horror doesn’t stop with the unwelcomed presence of another reader who’s defaced my new book. But it deepens with something called view popular highlights, which will tell you how many morons have underlined before so that not only you do not own the new book you paid for, the entire experience of reading is shattered by the presence of a mob that agitates inside your text like strangers in a train station.

“So now you can add to the ease of downloading an e-book the end of the illusion that it is your book. The end of the privileged relation between yourself and your book. And a certainty that you’ve been had. Not only is the e-book not yours to be with alone, it is shared at Amazon which shares with you what it knows about you reading and the readings of others. And lets you know that you are what you underline, which is only a number in a mass of popular views…. Conformism does come of age in the most private of peaceful activities–reading a book, one of the last solitary pleasures in a world full of prompts to behave. My Kindle, sugar-coated cyanide.

–Andrei Codrescu on NPR’s All Things Considered

How’s about that, hm? Rather a different take on Sam Anderson’s concept that I discussed in yesterday’s post. Just thought you might be interested. I fully sympathize with Codrescu’s feelings about having other readers’ impressions imbedded in what I’m reading: it clouds my experience. Even if I do care what another reader thinks, I want to hear about it after I’ve read the work myself, unsullied, the first time. What do YOU think about writing in books? Sometimes, never, always? Of course only in books that belong to you. Right?!


Thank you to my mother for sending me this interesting article from the New York Times Magazine. Sam Anderson riffs, “What I Really Want Is Someone Rolling Around in the Text.”

The idea is this: for Anderson, the best and defining part of reading is writing in the margins. He jots notes and underlines and otherwise marks up his texts, which enriches his reading as he goes, as well as his future readings. And he’s concerned that in an age of e-readers, his “‘marginalia’ – a self-consciously pompous Latinism intended to mock the triviality of the form” – will perish. Because you can’t write on an e-reader. Yet.

And then Anderson changes key and explores all the wonderful possibilities the e-reader offers. Surely a stylus that allows one to “write” – handwrite – in the margins of an e-reader isn’t far off (I’m not up on these things, maybe it’s already on). But Anderson theorizes about the shareability of these margin notes, and this is where he catches my imagination.

I’m not a big fan of marginalia, myself. I had an English teacher in high school – a wonderful teacher, who I loved and who taught me so much of the love of literature and the small understanding of it that I enjoy today. She taught margin notes. She took up our personal copies of books we read for class (my first experience with Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, for example) and actually graded us on the highlighting and margin-note-taking we did. But it didn’t catch on for me. I probably did annotate a few books after being in her class; but then I stopped, and thank goodness. These days it irritates me to no end to find margin notes in a book I’m reading – even if the notes are my own! (They tend to be from high school, which may be part of my irritation.) They distract me from what I’m trying to read – the book itself. I want to hear from the author, who I assume wrote everything she or he wanted to in the text of the dern thing. Footnotes are welcome. But I’m not generally interested in some third party’s footnote, thank you very much.

But. Anderson offers me tantalizing concepts like… “reading, say, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and touching a virtual button so that — ping! — Ernest Hemingway’s marginalia instantly appears, or Ralph Ellison’s, or Mary McCarthy’s.” Wow! (Okay, maybe he did grab my interest with Hemingway; but the others are almost as tempting :).)

“Old-school marginalia was – to put it into contemporary cultural terms – a kind of slow-motion, long-form Twitter, or a statusless, meaning-soaked Facebook, or an analog, object-based G-chat. (Nevermind: it was social, is my point.)” Well put, sir. I get it now. I get the sharing of margin notes – on purpose, that is. I don’t appreciate the random margin notes of strangers left in public library books I check out, mistakenly correcting a published author’s already-correct grammar, and then being corrected again by the next library patron. I do NOT want that. But Anderson’s way is better: with an e-reader with marginalia-sharing capabilities, I could get only the notes I wanted. And when I wanted – so that I could read a text first unsullied, and then consult my friends or admired (even dead!) authors for their thoughts.

I also appreciate the larger theme that I take away from Anderson’s article, one that librarians (and booksellers, and publishers, and authors…) are discussing a lot these days. Reading and writing are changing; the e-reader format offers a great many reasons for concern – are we going to go out of business? But it also offers opportunities. I can’t begin to think of them all; luckily there’s a lot of thinking going on out there. Our challenge, as librarians, booksellers, publishers, writers, readers, consumers, is to be creative about the ways in which e-readers (and a host of technological changes) can offer us new and positive change, rather than just bemoaning what it’s costing us. So, good job Mr. Anderson, and thanks Mom. 🙂

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