Posted by: oneyearbook | April 16, 2009

Two Posts about Margaret Atwood, Post the Second

Still on the topic of Negotiating with the Dead, but  more peripherally. (By the way Literary Photographer has a nice pic of Atwood  in the gallery – it’s #5 in the bunch here.)

Anyway, this is more about reading than about writing, and more about the way that gets done than Margaret herself, but it did come up while reading the book.

For a long time I’ve used a particular strategy to mark things in books that I want to go back and note down (words that I want to look up, particularly apt turns of phrase, facts I want to follow up on, books I want to read): I make a tiny dog-ear, a third of the size of your average, regular reading dog-ear, and leave it at that. Then while I’m reading I know what page I’m on – the dog-ear is much larger – but when I’m done reading I can go back and unflip those little corners and scan the page for whatever it was I wanted to pick up again. Sometimes I can’t remember and curse my past self. I’ve done this for years now and I always thought that it came from Ex Libris, Anne Fadiman’s wonderful collections of essays about reading; specifically from the essay “Never Do That to a Book,” which discusses the various ways in which people mark up (or don’t) books. There are those that put them face-down; there are those with bookmark collections; there are those that write in their books (I’m one of them) and those that consider that sacrilege. But now I’ve gone back and I see that the method I use is not exactly that described by Anne as her own: “I turn down the upper corner for page-marking and the lower corner for pages I want to xerox for my copy book.” Ah well. Close enough. My method works for me.

But back to Atwood. I was reading along, marking pages a bit promiscuously – there are lots of interesting things in books like this, I find – and on page xix of the introduction chanced across this phrase:  “any such notions that have wandered into this book have got there by the usual writerly methods, which resemble the ways of the jackdaw: we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests.”

I liked the phrase so much I knew I had to write it down. I reached for the upper corner and went to turn over just the tiniest little dog-ear flap; and it fell easily, along an already-creased line. Someone else, some past reader (it was a library book), had thought to mark the same page.

Of course I have no way of knowing that it wasn’t just someone fiddling with the page; or that someone else doesn’t make tiny dog-ears just to mark their place; or that, if, by chance, they use it to mark places to return to, they weren’t thinking of some phrase further down the page. Two short stories are mentioned on the page, one by James Reaney and one by Ian McEwan, that both seem interesting enough to be worth marking for future reference. But I liked the feeling of being part of a community of readers, one in a long line of people who have picked up this book and turned the pages, fallen into the prose, just as I have. Sometimes when reading, especially your own copies of books or even used ones, it’s hard to find evidence of that comunity.

I love used books where someone else has written in them. I own a signed copy of a book of short stories by a famous Canadian author that was actually inscribed to another famous Canadian author, “For X, with all best wishes.” I don’t know why or how it ended up for sale in a used bookshop but I won’t identify either of those involved, so as to spare the feelings of both the innocent and the guilty. I also own, at the opposite end of the thrill spectrum, a copy of Joyce’s Dubliners that someone has carefully marked up, clearly for a college course, with all sorts of semi-insightful political observations and interpretations of character motivation. It’s rather fun to read it that way. It doesn’t take anything away from the story, although I know some people would disagree with me on that.

Anyway I am imagining that someone before me took out Margaret Atwood’s book on writing from the little local library branch and, enchanted with that jackdaw image, marked it down for further reference, just as I have. It’s a nice circle, that.



  1. I do the same tiny-dog-ear thing you do. I know I really enjoyed a book if it’s thick with them. But I’d say at least 25% of the time, I can’t remember what exactly I’d wanted to remember from that page. It’s funny how something can move us so much in a moment, and then, years later, not stand out at all.

  2. Yeah … and in my case, with library books, I try to go through the markers and write them down after I read it – and I’ll still not be able to figure out what I was excited about and it’s just two days later.

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