I’m really picky about used books.
Now don’t get me wrong: brittle, yellowing pages are no problem. Dog-eared corners and torn dust jackets only enhance the patina of a book, and a handwritten dedication on the flyleaf—or better yet, an ex libris inside the front cover—is a priceless bit of literary archaeology. I adore “Ex-Library” copies with their rubber-stamped DISCARD, their plastic slipcovers, and sometimes even—oh joy—an old-fashioned pocket inside the back cover (does anyone still remember how we used to check out library books?)
All these defects are perfectly fine, and only heighten the allure of a used book. My pickiness sets in, though, on the inside: with rare exceptions, I cannot abide a book with marked-up pages.
Shopping online for used books, instead of clicking “Buy Now,” I tediously and time-consumingly comb through sellers’ descriptions in search of the magic words “clean, unmarked text.” I’ve been known to demand my entire seven dollars back for a used book which, when it arrived, turned out to be copiously annotated in pen.
Why all the fuss? What’s wrong with a little underlining? Well, the problem isn’t underlining—it’s that it’s not my underlining. Because, truth be told, I’m the worst offender: the most-read and best-loved books in my own library are filled edge to edge, top to bottom, with underlining, notes, and commentary.
Am I a hypocrite? (Gulp.) I hope not; let me explain.
The Limits of Books
Though it may seem as common and mundane as the air we breathe, reading is in fact a strange and marvelous transaction. Think about it: how is it possible for feelings, knowledge, intentions—things that are very real, but also very invisible—to be conveyed by symbols on a page? How can you or I be privy to the thoughts of people who lived hundreds of years before us and halfway around the world? Have you ever stopped to ponder just how magical this thing called “reading” is?
Around 2400 years ago, Socrates (of all people) disparaged the written word, saying that it gives only “the appearance of wisdom, not … its reality” (Plato, Phaedrus 275a). He even formulated this harsh indictment:
"You’d think they [written words] were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever …. [Writing] doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, … it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support." (Phaedrus 275d–e)
For Socrates, in other words, books are at best a one-sided monologue: they can’t choose their audience, answer questions, or explain themselves more fully when the reader doesn’t understand. And to some extent he is right—books can never fully substitute for the iron-sharpening-iron, truth-seeking enterprise of earnest dialogue with another human being.
But with all due respect to Socrates, I’m not quite ready to dismiss the magic of reading.
The Physicality of Reading
My habit of scribbling in books—which only becomes more excessive and insistent each time I return to a text—is a way of trying to enter into authentic conversation with the words on the page and the personality behind them. Of course it can’t be a literal dialogue, but it can do something just as important: making marks on a page engages a physical, kinetic response to the text, and with physicality comes imagination.
We might be inclined to assume that reading is purely mental or cognitive. But in reality, it also involves our bodies—it is an aesthetic experience, in the truest sense of the word. The act of reading speaks to and through the physical senses. Those of us who aren’t content to rely entirely on Kindle and e-books know how important it is to hold a physical volume in our hands; the tactility of embossed covers and the smoothness of illustrated plates is an essential part of the reading pleasure. The rustle of pages and the soft crackling of binding and dustcover quite literally speaks to the sense of hearing, and every bibliophile knows the intoxicating “new book smell” of a recent release.
Sight and Imagination
Above all, though, reading is intensely visual. Obviously, we need sight to perceive the printed words, but even more fundamentally, true reading requires the active engagement of the imagination. Have you ever thought about the word “imagination”; have you ever noticed that it contains the word “image”? Imagination is “picturing”: it kicks in whenever some stimulus, whether from inside or outside ourselves, causes us to “see” things in our minds, to “envision” things that are not, or not yet, visibly present. Although the objects of this “seeing” may not be tangible or physical, it is a seeing nonetheless, expressed in visual terms in our minds and souls.
Speaking purely from my own experience, the difference between a superficial reading that serves only self-interested, utilitarian purposes and the kind of reading that can change my mind, alter my soul, and give birth to a whole new perspective on life is whether or not I allow the letters on the page to evoke images in my mind. This kind of reading is slow and careful; it is reading that lingers over words and phrases and makes space for them to subtly but surely—like buds opening into flowers—reveal the scenes, visions, and images latent within them. Imagination—image-making—is the magic of reading; imagination is what gives books the power to transform our vision of reality.
Drawing in Books
For me, the pages of a book are not a neutral space. Printed words are not merely symbols in black and white; they are that, but they are also more: they are small gateways to large worlds. Reading is neither neutral nor ordinary: it is one of the most mysterious (dare I say sacred) transactions possible for us humans, a transaction at the threshold between visible and invisible, physical and conceptual, body and soul.
Reading with pencil in hand—whether scribbling, underlining, annotating, or even creating pictures and scenes, as in my recent series of drawings on book pages, The Book of Nature—is one of the best ways I know to invoke this mystery and to practice dwelling at this threshold. Armed with imagination, scribbling in books might even occasionally enable us to catch a glimpse of what lies behind the veil between the Seen and the Unseen.