Annotate This


When my roommate fanned the pages of the copy of 501 Portuguese Verbs she had bought from someone in New Jersey through, a folded piece of notebook paper floated to the floor. It was a letter, written in Portuguese, to the previous owner of the book.

“I ought to send it back,” my roommate said, but instead—despite her limited Portuguese and the close, crabbed handwriting of the letter writer—she tried to decipher it.

“I tried to call you, but your telephone was broken,” she translated haltingly. “It has been broken for a long time, and so now I am writing you. I don’t know why the telephone is broken…” She looked up. “The letter’s all about the telephone.” We leaned back, disappointed, having hoped for something more scandalous.

Still, the very monomania of the Portuguese letter writer was intriguing. Why the fixation on the telephone? What was the subtext? To whom would someone pen such a peculiar letter? Or was “telephone” merely a code word? To whom had 501 Portuguese Verbs once belonged?

Such questions have plagued me ever since budgetary concerns exiled me from the glossy, dust-jacket-rich world of new books, and seem especially pressing as shelves of used books line the Coop at the beginning of a new semester. New books had always seemed to me a means of communion with the author and his ideas; used books transform that communion into a conference call.

An artifact so telling as the Portuguese telephone letter intensifies this feeling, as do marginal notes and inscriptions. In the introduction to her recent study Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books, H.J. Jackson mentions the scene in Wuthering Heights where the narrator, Lockwood, flips through one of Catherine’s books and finds “pen-and-ink commentary…covering every morsel of blank that the printer had left.” I have rarely been lucky enough to find so heavily-annotated a used book, but—even after reading brief and inane notes as “God needs to forgive Hal himself!!!” I have felt some of Lockwood’s “immediate interest…for the unknown Catherine.”

My copy of Shakespeare’s complete works, for example, which I have borrowed from my father who bought it, used, in the early ’70s, includes both cryptic notes (including “Wed. 8/ Apt. 2” and “Mrs. Price—$94”) and such historic marginalia as poorly drawn peace signs in blue ink—one of which is actually the Mercedes logo. A copy of E.B. White’s collected essays that I’ve been reading contains running marginal criticism (“bad,” “poor,” ) of striking presumptuousness. I have a copy of Keats’ poetry with a piece of hedge pressed in the back. Next to it, someone has written “From Keats’ grave” in spidery script. Who was the inept peacenik? Who the E.B. White critic? Who the Keats devotee? Whoever they are, I like to think we’re members of the same attenuated book club.

I can’t muster the same enthusiasm for the handwritten inscriptions in books. Reading the inscriptions is like knowing you own a repossessed car; you are profiting from someone’s failure. What sort of ingrates were George and Everett to consign their birthday and Christmas presents from the Glenns and Grace, respectively, to the thrift store where I bought them? Whoever the Glenns and Grace were, they spent some time writing their names and the occasion on the flyleaves of Lone Eagle of the Border and Carl Hall of Tait. And yet their hopes of being remembered by George and Everett were as futile as those of the Portuguese-speaking woman calling the broken telephone for “a long time.”

Forgotten as they were by George and Everett, though, Grace and the Glenns have achieved some measure of immortality with their forgotten inscriptions: seventy-five years after they made their Christmas and birthday presents, I note their generosity.

This promise of limited immortality is what makes annotating books so appealing. When I was in elementary school, all the dirty words in the classroom dictionaries were double-underlined—the legacy of some tough kid who had flouted the rules; afterwards, writing in books struck me as a minor but sordid crime—an impression reinforced by the prickly anti-annotation posters in Lamont. Reading used books has changed my mind. I have become an extravagant annotator, running pencil commentary up the margins and between paragraph breaks, covering every morsel of blank in the hope that, years hence, someone will wonder who I was.

Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.