31 December 2010

Life in the Margins

My friend is in his 80s; he wears dual hearing aids because he is nearly deaf, having had his eardrums blown out in WWII. He is developing cataracts which make seeing difficult, although he's planning surgery for them. I find this a lovely, optimistic thing to do: his curiosity and love of reading beating back those pesky proteins that would cloud the page. He does love to read and sits over his magazine with a colored pencil, editing the misspellings and poor grammar and incorrect facts. Fred was a teacher in his pre-retirement years. What a guy! I like to think of him as a humble guardian - a gatekeeper of the Mother Tongue - waging war with marker drawn.

Like many older folks, he likes to read things that are reminiscent: histories of areas he knows, stories from periods with which he identifies, and down-home country-isms. He is from down home, you see. He grew up on the Kentucky side in Appalachia, and his wife on the Virginia side. I like to think of them as a Romeo and Juliet meets the Hatfields and McCoys, only much happier, and clearly more sensibly disposed.

I was recently the recipient of some of Fred's hand-me-down periodicals. He was ready to donate them, and this particular publication is popular with local genealogists. I brought them home to remove address labels and to thumb through them before passing them along. As I browsed through Fred's editorial marks, I found a window into his life. For example, I never knew much about his military service, but his comments in the margins of articles written on the subject gave me to understand where he had fought and what he thought about the experience. Cryptic comments, like "tough time," "agree," "even worse," let me know that whatever the writer's description, it could not begin to measure what he had seen.

Specializing in non-urban, non-contemporary country life, these magazines spoke of growing up in remote hollows, drawing well water, no electricity, and barefoot boyhood. I could tell where Fred's bare feet had wandered, and a few things he had seen and experienced every time I came across his emphatic underlining and scrawled observations.

I have had one other such notable experience with margin notes in my life. In high school, a good friend and I shared a history book. I couldn't afford one; we had history at different times so she graciously shared her book and we passed it back and forth in the hall. For the record, I have always loved history but this class was decidedly boring and to enliven the hour we would make notes in the current reading, knowing the other would see it. We drew pictures back and forth, and otherwise communicated across the barrier of time via our extra-literation.  You could say we drew and read between the lines.

I remember once buying a textbook at a college book sale that boasted the following scheme: in the front cover of each book was the grade the student had made in the course (in order to sell your books this way you had to provide grade slips for proof) and you could buy based on one of a couple of strategies: you could buy the "A" student books and know you could probably trust their margin notes, or you could buy the unmarked books of the "C" and "D" students and start completely fresh. I always bought the marked books.

I have since experienced other editorial handiwork, some pleasant and some not. Thesis corrections were painful and occasionally incomprehensible. One undergrad professor often made my day with his sincere and supportive margin notes. As a student, you live and die by the red pencil. I have even experienced professional editing via computer program, although I must say it isn't quite the same. It's like breaking up in a text - just a little too impersonal.

A part of me feels it would open up an interesting new world if we could write a brief comment in every book we read. This is incendiary speech coming from a librarian, I know. And at the risk of creating a host of administrative problems for libraries everywhere, I will refrain, as should you.

Just know that when you buy my books, you get the window into my soul for free.

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