In order to understand writing, I have to annotate it. I started with Hopkins. I bought a used edition of his selected poetry and prose, and started writing in the margins of the beige pages. This wasn’t defacing; this was an act of communion.
One of the joys for me of second hand books is reading the marginalia. It’s not always clever or profound, but sometimes I see the conversation, the interrogation, the connections made, between a reader and the text and it can be thrilling. I remember reading somewhere that Coleridge’s annotations and marginalia were so impressive that friends and patrons would pay him to read and annotate books that they would then keep as cherished keepsakes in their personal libraries.
I have a few books that so captured me I had to create my own index in the back of the book and underlined or scribbled in the margins beside a line or paragraph that unsettled me or caused me to see things in a different light. Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind is one such book that leaps to mind.
But Nick Ripatrazone is not so much in dialogue with the text he’s reading; instead, he’s making marks on the page to understand how the words make poetry. It’s a sign of my own ignorance and innocence that it never occurred to me to annotate a poem this way, but of course it makes perfect sense.
Fiction writers are advised to do the same thing: copy out by hand or keyboard a short story or even a novel that means something to you. (Harry Crews meticulously studied and typed out the whole of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.) By feeling every comma and period under your fingers, you’re engaging with the text not as a dreamer, but as a student, an apprentice.
The nearest thing I’ve done to what Ripatrazone describes is when I used to act. My script would be marked with blocking, underlined emphases, and – whenever I got a speech – breaking the long passage down into smaller passages with hash marks, finding a rhythm both musically and emotionally that the words could travel on.
As pretty as a pristine edition of a book can be, there’s something about a book that’s been argued with, pored over, and written in that makes that book way more interesting.