Anybody catch Tim Parks’ New York Review of Books blog post, A Weapon for Readers? The weapon in question? A pen! For writing in your books. It is clear where Parks stands on marginalia. He advocates reading not with a pen nearby or on the table next to you or in your bag, but reading with a pen in your hand.
But how is this a weapon? Parks thinks we have too much respect for the written word and too little awareness of what words are doing. We are too passive, too accepting. We let novelists get away with too much. Reading with a pen in hand makes one more alert and a more active reader.
He has tested this on his students. None of them marked up their books. He told them they had to. Not only did they have to mark up the text, but they had to make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical and if it’s aggressive, even better. A question mark should be placed next to anything you find suspect, underline anything you appreciate, and freely write things like “splendid” or “bullshit” in the margins too.
“A pen is not a magic wand,” he admits, but he found that this experiment with his students helped them improve their reading. Of course writing in library books is not encouraged, that’s just rude. But your own books? I get the feeling Parks wants them to look well read by the time you get to the end — folded pages, writing all over the place, a cracked spine.
Parks is rather aggressive with his pen as weapon idea:
There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text.
It makes it seem like reading is an adversarial relationship between author, book, and reader. I don’t approach reading like that. For me reading is like dating. Sometimes I am looking for love. Sometimes I just want a one night stand. Sometimes we don’t even make it to first base and other times it is an out of the park home run. Now and then I just want to flirt. And then there are the deep and serious encounters when you plumb the depth of your being. I could go on, but you get the idea. Even with a pen in my hand it never transforms into a weapon. I’m just taking notes so I can gossip about all the details with my friends later.
I thought it kind of interesting that Parks’s post showed up so soon after the digital is killing marginalia article. I suppose this is now a subtopic of the print versus digital debate. I wonder how long it will drag on before there is nothing left to say and everything becomes repetitive? Actually, I think it might already be on it’s last gasp. But like a mortally wounded character in a Shakespeare tragedy, it will have some very long speeches before the curtain falls on it.