Thursday, January 20, 2011
Mark up Your Books, Kids!
My eleventh grade English teacher not only had a film star vibe: emerald eyes, smoky, tortured expression; thick, black hair brushed back in a tousled mess; he was also whip smart about books and writers. I was hooked in by both factors. We went deep into The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald, Animal Farm by Orwell and The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers. This one was probably my favorite at the time.
“Mark up your books!” he insisted, and he meant business. He came around the room and showed us how he marked up his own book. There were all kinds of notes scrawled in the side margins, underlined sections and circled words.
I did what I was told. It worked! It helped draw me into the stories and get up close and personal with them. It helped me remember important themes, lines and transitions. I think of the experience now, of marking up those pristine pages with scribbled explanations, and circled passages that highlighted breathtaking prose, as the equivalent of getting sand in your fingernails from playing in the sandbox as a kid. An essential, organic, down and dirty tryst with fine literature.
As a reader, I jot down words I’m not sure of, right inside the front page of a book, to look up later. As an author, I’ve done the exercise that another writing teacher recommended: Take a children’s book that you admire. Highlight all of the exposition with one color, the dialog with another color, the character descriptions with a third color. You can also do a separate color for each character. And then, examine the results. How much text is devoted to dialog, how much to summary, and so on? Great way to parse out how writers craft their scenes.
As a teacher, I tell my students, “Mark up your books! Note the transformative lines, the most poetic and powerful lines. Do a close, close reading, always holding a pen! Circle the passages where the hero or heroine steps fully into her fate. Highlight the symbolic elements—the coral paperweight in 1984, the descriptions of the Lake in The Seagull. What do these symbols really represent? Why did the author place those descriptions where he did? Compare them. Don’t let me see a pure white book! Let me see your thinking on the pages, your organic process.”
You can see, from my pictures above, that I’ve even been known to jot down a Tarot reading (I don't take these seriously, it's just for fun) on the inside cover of a book. I’ve also started novels on the inside back covers.
Do you mark up your books? Or are you one of those readers, who believe that one should, and must keep a book in its pristine state? If so, why? What’s your surefire method of getting a book under your skin? How do you study a writer’s craft? Do you take notes on a separate piece of paper? How do you truly digest a book?