Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Why I Don't Underline

In one of actor Ed Norton's finest roles, a duplicitous Aaron Stempler betrays the devil beneath his orchestrated angelic facade when it outs in open court that a string of numbers carved in the chest of a murdered priest corresponds to a passage in the priest's private copy of The Scarlet Letter; something about wearing two faces that apparently reveals the killer's motive. It was proven that Stempler had underlined the passage, thus demonstrating his connection to the murder.

It is not precisely for this reason, though maybe baring some relation, that I do not underline books. From time to time the impulse to mar a perfectly nice copy of Mailer, or EB White, or Hemingway gestates in my ribaldrous heart, but even on the worst of days, I triumph over this murderous impulse and that is how I sleep at night. It is not that I regard the practice of underlining passages as categorically monstrous (no more so than, say, branding cattle, or small children). Rather, I know myself when it comes to historical consciousness, especially personal historical consciousness, and I fear what implacable self-sleuth might uncover such chicken-scratchings and testify upon my character.

I wish it weren't true. I wish I could say I don't underline books because of my deep respect for the aesthetic experience of reading; but truth be told, I am perfectly liable to break mid-sentence to regard a passing cloud, or thought, or political era, and never you mind what fragile beauty my victimized author had been fighting to achieve. It's not that I don't appreciate continuity in aesthetic experience (I really don't like to take pictures but in the absolutely most covert manner), but I've never had a problem treating literature as platform for thought, and so never mind leaving off the one for the other. So that's not it.

No, the problem is two-fold. First, I know that however important the word or phrase seems at the time, no amount of retrospective projection will elevate the underlined passage to the heroic stature that it occupies at the moment of anointment. This is not because the passage is not objectively great, you understand. Nor even that I fear in subsequent reading that the passage will necessarily shy from the task of rising to its title, wilt under my accusatory eye. I know in the end the word is going to be fine. I just don't want to heap any extra burden on something that already assumes so much responsibility in this world. I know it looks like an accolade, and it is, but we needn't press every pretty leaf we see. Sometimes it's much better to just be happy that it exists and move on.

And the second reason I do not underline books is that any phrase so good to merit immortality shall have it naturally. That is, I believe that if you really like something, you'll remember it anyway; so there's no need to mark-up a bunch of phrases that seem neat at the time but which you'll never remember where they were, or what they were about, or why you liked them.

But that said, I've really no interest in dissuading you from any of your reading habits. Slash Beowulf with an inked scimitar, if it please you. Perhaps you'd infuse it with new life. Me, I like to pass all sorts of things right by.

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