Friday, September 24, 2004

On Used Books, Student Underlining,and Marginalia

My library extends through each room of my house, except the bathrooms. (I suspect that in the average household, where the only purpose of reading could be to inspire excretion, it is the other way around.) If I weren’t pro-Israel I would say that my library commits territorial aggression against my wife’s ‘Palestinian’ books; her few shelves are either occupied territories or under threat of occupation. My bibliomaniacal blogger-buddies Mangan and Gilleland would turn green with envy if ever they laid eyes on my library. So I shall have to protect them from descent into this, arguably the deadliest, of the seven deadly sins.

Many of my books were acquired on the cheap from used bookstores in college towns such as Boston-Cambridge and Bloomington. I used to really clean up when disgruntled graduate students packed it in, dumping costly libraries purchased with daddy’s money into the used book dens.

Among the used books I scored were plenty of copies of philosophical classics used in undergraduate courses. I always used to get a kick out of the marginalia, if you want to call them that. Mostly it was the absence of marginalia that caught my eye, an absence corresponding to the paucity of thought with which the reading was done. The rare marginalium was usually pathetic. Here is a passage from Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (1794):


Revelation is a communication of something which the person to whom that thing is revealed did not know before. For if I have done a thing or seen it done, it needs no revelation to tell me I have done it or seen it, nor to enable me to tell it or to write it. (LLA, p. 13)

That’s not the best writing in the world, but the thought is clear enough. Our brilliant student’s comment? "Word Play!" ‘Word Play!’ is ever on the lips of boneheads who cannot or will not comprehend any piece of well-constructed prose. The litany of the blockhead: Wordplay! Semantics! Hairsplitting!

One good thing about student marginalia was that it never extended very far since the reading never extended very far: the obscene magic marker underlining typically ceased three or four pages into the text.

One of the many drawbacks of teaching is that one could never get the little effers to do the reading especially if one used primary sources, refusing to dumb things down with comic books, A/V 'aids,' etc.: once they saw that genuine effort was demanded, they wimped out. All my preaching about being athletes of the mind availed nothing, falling on dead ears, like pearls before swine. Or am I being too harsh?

Harsh or not, it is blissful to repose in my Bradleyan reclusivity, far from the unreality of the classroom.