On Annotating Books

My annotations on a page from John Banville’s Birchwood.

 

To read, I need a book and a pencil.

I’d like to emphasis that the pencil is as much a conduit of information between book and mind, as are eyes and brain, and as much of a physical necessity, as is my ability to hold a book open or flip a page.

I produce the following anecdotal evidence:

If I sink into a sofa with a book, but without a pencil, I will exhibit all the symptoms of anxiety and discomfort—fidgeting, gazing about, scratching, gazing about, back-and-forth page-flipping because I can’t remember what I just read, and some more gazing about—until I finally get up and acquire that writing implement I’d been gazing about for.

It has to be a pencil (preferably a mechanical pencil so I don’t need to sharpen it), but no erasers are needed.

michal-grosicki https://unsplash.com/photos/refAFfV35Cw

Reading implements.

 

Underlining is much maligned; it’s generally useless, it’s for those who can’t think at the time of reading but leave it for later, it produces an appearance of engagement while actually reducing it.

All true.

That is why I mark up the text and take notes.

Marking up a text involves:

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Six Hundred and Twenty-Three

Avond (Evening): The Red Tree, by Piet Mondrian (1908-1910)—I preferred this painting to one of his lozenges.

 

I compiled a list. Take a moment to guess what these words have in common:

leaven, reticulum, neroli oil, raglan, syzygy, lozenge.

Don’t try too hard, it’s not obvious, other than I liked them, they’re nouns, and they sit in a file together with a few dozen others. That’s it. No deeper insight.

Doesn’t that leave you feeling unsatisfied?

Certainly that’s how I feel, when I’m given a selection off someone’s list, but there isn’t a clear designation of why these words even when they’re supposedly a purposeful sample.

It’s like being given a few answers from a survey, but not being told whether those answers are the best, the worst, the most frequent, the most obscure. In which case you might respond: fine just give me all the data from the survey, I’ll read it myself.

Satan in Paradise by Gustave Dore, illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost.

 

One chapter of Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon presents a selection of words that John Milton (1608–1674) introduced into the English language. The chapter is written in Forsyth’s signature style—bantering, yet erudite—but at one point he simply lets a list speak for itself:

Milton adored inventing words. When he couldn’t find the right term he just made one up: impassive, obtrusive, jubilant, loquacious, unconvincing, Satanic, persona, fragrance, beleaguered, sensuous, undesirable, disregard, damp, criticise, irresponsible, lovelorn, exhilarating, sectarian, unaccountable, incidental, and cooking. All Milton’s. When it came to inventive wording, Milton actually invented the word wording.

Fun! But what to make of the list? Is it ordered alphabetically? No. Are its elements the same parts of speech? No. Are the words related to an obvious subject? No. So what then?

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Dissenting Voices: Quirks and Perks

 

A number of years ago I read a book called How to Read a Book (1940), by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. It’s not some postmodernist meta-referential literature; it’s non-fiction that teaches the art of absorbing letters.

I was mocked for taking it seriously. (After all, what is there to reading?)

I persisted.

The book pointed out some useful techniques, of which one at least has become almost a reflex. I call it book pigeonholing. 

Quote: 

Rule 1. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.

Knowing what type of text you’re approaching determines your point of view. For example, reading a short fictional story versus a piece of investigative journalism changes your willingness to suspend disbelief and apply critical thinking.

Pigeonholing a piece of writing is usually done first by source: where did you find it, who wrote it, is it a trustworthy source, is it fiction, etc. Then by title and subtitle: as I’ve discussed these past two weeks in terms of non-fiction, the most successful titles are designed to resonate with the content (as well as “hook” the reader). Next come any prefaces or pictures or graphs or other information.

Ultimately, it’s all to do with expectation. The closer a reader’s initial expectation is to the actual experience, the higher the likelihood they’ll be satisfied. This is why blurbs or advertisements ought to be representative; and why we have the divisions into fiction and non-fiction, into literary and genre, into YA and adult; and why websites tell you the expected reading time of an article or the particular skill set or information you will glean.

So things have changed since 1940.

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The Writer Who Never Writes

max-conrad https://unsplash.com/photos/H1rvxkzq8A0

If you want to write, you should write. Otherwise you might become one of those people who are brimming with ideas, while perennially on the verge of penning a story.

Oh, but the writer’s block!

Oh, but I’m not ready!

Oh, but …

I fear the verge more than I fear the blank page. However, I do acknowledge there is an inherent resistance present at the beginning of any project. The mind, like the body, prefers stasis. That is why getting started with an activity is often a challenge, but also why once on a roll it becomes easier to stay on a roll. 

When you’re writing a piece in a single sitting, getting yourself into that chair is harder than staying there. When you’re writing a larger body of work that requires many sittings, getting into that chair is hardest the first time, but still an achievement every other time.

The question is: what if you’ve been planning to write, planning and plotting and note-taking for days and weeks and even years, but it’s come to nothing because you haven’t thrown down that first word?

Augusto Monterroso wrote a short story exploring that situation. His thirty-four-year-old protagonist, Leopoldo, has been devoted to literature for half of his life, but seems unable to surmount that crucial first hurdle. In the Quote, Leopoldo is considering writing a story about the pecking order in corporate society.

Quote: He made a note that he needed to take notes, and he wrote in his notebook: “THE PECKING STORY. Visit two or three large department stores. Make observations, take notes. If possible, talk with a manager. Get into his psychology and compare it to a chicken’s.”

—from Leopoldo (His Labors), translation from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.

What makes the Quote quiver?

The psychology of a chicken. (Specificity.)

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To Really Know a Word

Modern-day aspiring authors are advised against long words in convoluted punctuation-sausages filled with phrase upon clause upon fragment. Such constructions are said to be either obsolete or abstruse. And why bother when masters of the craft themselves rarely reach for such exotic linguistic contortions?

(Brevity is the soul of wit.

Occam’s razor.

Tweets.)

Taken at face value, that kind of advice is equivalent to suggesting you should make a good façade, without worrying whether your building is part of a Potemkin village, that is, whether there exists a building behind the front-facing wall.

Potemkin gave façades a bad name. (Painting by Dmitry Levitzky, c. 1797)

It’s the fake it till you make it method, which argues that eventually you’ll pick up the complicated stuff by osmosis.

But any serious piece of writing is cumulative: you can only fake it for so long. Sooner or later an audience member will move in a little closer and touch the brickwork with their pinkie. Which is when the glitzy scenery comes toppling down—paint, plywood, and authorial pride included.

So before making it the hard labour has to be done: the foundations dug, filled in, reinforced, all that goodly construction work that ensures the building can withstand the hurricanes of time and the hellfires of critics. In the case of the writer, that means grappling with (amongst other things) the basic blocks of language: words.

Hands up if you’d love to brush up on your vocabulary.

Hands up if you do brush up on your vocabulary regularly. Or ever.

(I’m not even going ask about learning foreign languages.)

Children imbibe new words; they’re unafraid to experiment with them, to practise their variations, to ask endless chainlinked why questions. The rest of us swallow new words like they’re thistles—it’s painful and digestion takes a while.

But that shouldn’t deter us.

jonathan-simcoe https://unsplash.com/photos/GxnyOLTxCr8

In Negative Writing Advice, I discuss Noah Lukeman’s First Five Pages. His approach to telling writers what not to do works well, in part because he also includes some brilliant exercises and positive advice. He won me over with a tight, spot-on section on vocabulary.

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Negative Writing Advice

Advice comes in two flavours:

  • what to do (positive advice),
  • what not to do (negative advice).

Positive advice is like being shown Edgar Rubin’s vase

… and being told you should look for two faces.

Aha, a revelation! Your eyes have been opened; your problems have been fixed.

Negative advice is like being shown the same vase …

… and being told it’s not a vase. Then the interpretation is up to you.

Yes, I did flip the image; yes, I added some black, some white. I not only changed my perspective, I embellished it—according to my imagination.

Negative advice is far more open-ended and sometimes it’s the only kind you can give with a degree of certainty. In particular, here’s Noah Lukeman, in the opening of his book The First Five Pages.

Quote: There’re no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.  

Note, however, that avoiding poor writing is a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition for producing great writing. Indeed, like with my vase example above, even after you’ve been told what not to do, your literary venture—in all its newfound gloss and glory—may fall short of a masterpiece. Just because you’ve been shown which way lies artistic hell, doesn’t mean you’ve found a ladder to the heavenly abode of your muse.

(It occurs to me: eight of the Ten Commandments are of the negative form thou shalt not.)

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The Way We Swing

nicole-adams https://unsplash.com/search/children?photo=mKw4eamvjKA

The “radicals”.

E. B. White was not yet thirty-eight when he wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about Roosevelt’s suggestions to retire Supreme Court judges over the age of seventy. At seventy, men are just beginning to grow liberal again, after a decade or two of conservatism, writes White. The piece ends with the following paragraph; note White’s use of sweeping generalisations, balanced by a sprinkling of caution (italics are mine).

Quote: A man’s liberal and conservative phases seem to follow each other in a succession of waves from the time he is born. Children are radicals. Youths are conservatives, with a dash of criminal negligence. Men in their prime are liberals (as long as their digestion keeps pace with their intellect). The middle-aged, except in rare cases, run to shelter: then insure their life, draft a will, accumulate mementos and occasional tables, and hope for security. And then comes old age, which repeats childhood—a time full of humors and sadness, but often full of courage and even prophecy.
— E. B. White in Life Phases (2/20/37), Writings from The New Yorker 1927–1976edited by Rebecca M. Dale.

Do you agree, more or less, or do you disagree and have you come up with (yourself as) a counterexample?

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Paragraph Packing: A Short Example

Scream When You Burn.

If that were a writing prompt for a short story exercise, what would you write?

Image by Aziz Acharki https://unsplash.com/search/burn?photo=HsXgRlIr4Ls

Don’t actually burn

As it happens, Bukowski already wrote a short story with that title. While preparing Monday’s post featuring a dialogue sample from his Hot Water MusicI came across an excerpt that I’d highlighted in his Scream When You Burn. I thought the excerpt overwritten, and had marked it for analysis; I cite it below, as today’s Quote.

My impressions was that it repeated sentiments, and that not all the sentence were needed to retain meaning and impact. Take a look. What, if anything, do you think is redundant in the Quote?

The Quote also explains the title of his story—if you’d thought of your own story idea to match the prompt, you can compare how he justifies the title with how you would do it.

Quote:
He picked up Camus’ Resistance, Rebellion and Death…read some pages. Camus talked about anguish and terror and the miserable condition of Man but he talked about it in such a comfortable and flowery way…his language…that one got the feeling that things neither affected him nor his writing. In other words, things might as well have been fine. Camus wrote like a man who had just finished a large dinner of steak and French fries, salad, and had topped it with a bottle of good French wine. Humanity may have been suffering but not him. A wise man, perhaps, but Henry preferred somebody who screamed when they burned.

(The ellipses in the Quote are present in the original text; I have not omitted anything.)

Quick observations:

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