by Billy Collins
Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.
Other comments are more offhand, dismissive —
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” —
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.
Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.
Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.
And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.
We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.
Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoriao
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page—
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.
And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.
Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page
A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil—
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet—
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
For whatever reason, this reminds me of Hoke.
I can recall only one margin note I ever came across in a library book. It was in a section of Plato’s Republic dealing with what sort of poetry makes noble citizens and such claptrap. One of my predecessors had noted beside one of these proposals “then Homer becomes Herodotus”.
I don’t believe I have ever scribbled in a book I didn’t own. I have managed to mark up a few texts, but almost exclusively with asterisks, brackets, and question marks. I tried underlining with Hegel. It did not go well. I did, however, at least once manage to delve into actual notes. My copy of the Meno has “Knowledge as Easter Egg Hunt” scribbled in the margin.
Out of curiosity, what became of the ability to create new categories? It seems to me that Billy Collins could use one.
3 responses to “Easter Egg Salad”
Sorry about that. The new WordPress version tightened some security controls, and I didn’t notice the change. It should be fixed now. I also went ahead and created the category. Let me know if you have any other problems as well… the program is pretty customizable.
I’m leaving for Oregon in a few short hours, so longer comments will have to wait ’til I return, but: so far as I know, I have never written in a book, even my own. Perhaps I fetishize the material book, but I also don’t think it could help me much, and I doubt anyone else could make sense of anything I might write. I have ventured to take some short notes on a note card while reading through a book or two, but when after some time has passed I return to review the card, I have found I share so few of the sympathies I once had with the passages that my previous sentiments just strike me as odd. “My today refutes my yesterday…” I’m afraid I would end up saying little more than “Bullseye” or “My man!” next to otherwise unintelligible paragraphs, without being able to give any clue as to why I found them moving or salient. I’m reading Stendhal’s treatise on love right now, and he has some choice comments about marginalia; I’ll try to dig them up when I return.
Haven’t seen many notes in margins? I see them all the time when I buy used books for school! I’ve left quite a few in books sold back as well.