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SUBJECT: Underlining Text

I buy a lot of used books, mostly paperbacks. Before I'll actually pay for a book, though, I flip through it from front to back to see if it's been highlighted or underlined; if it has, even slightly, even with light lead pencil, that book goes back up on the shelf, because what happens is that whenever I hit an underlined passage, the work becomes unhinged for me, and I'm no longer alone with the words or narrative. There's another county heard from, which at the very least is interruptive, but often times it's maddening: "Why did they underline that?" People exercise their will wherever they can. Some train dogs to say, "I love you!" (as though the dog knows what the words mean), while others deface innocent paperbacks. It's a way of insinuating one's voice into the text, of tapping the author on the shoulder and saying, "This part here? You got that part right. The one part, at least."

Despite my aversion to the practice, I find I'm becoming one of those who underlines. I'm not proud of this. And I don't know why I do it. It serves no purpose. I rarely come back to the words, and as often as not I can't remember why I underlined the passage in the first place. At any rate, in the spirit of full disclosure, here are a few things I saw fit to underline. They are not, to give you advance warning, very interesting.

Nicholson Baker, U and I, page 158: "When the excessively shy force themselves to be forward, they are frequently surprisingly unsubtle and overdirect and even rude: they have entered an extreme region beyond their normal personality, an area of social crime where gradations don't count; unavailable to them are the instincts and taboos that booming extroverts, who know the territory of self-advancement far better, can rely on."

I think of this whenever I give a reading, or purchase anything from a human cashier.

Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, Written by Himself, page 151: "It is well know that a performer feels no suffering while on stage; a species of exaltation suspends all feelings foreign to his part, and hunger, thirst, cold, or heat, even illness itself, is forced to retreat in the presence of this excitement."

This is a sort of anti-companion to the previous quote. I suspect I underlined it because I disagreed with it so strongly.

Thomas Bernhard, Gargoyles, page 202: "For a long time now I have been concerned not with the idea of who will be on the moon tomorrow, but who will be the first to travel through the earth."

It's like he's reading my mind!

Robert Walser, Selected Stories, "Parisian Newspapers", page 141: "Since I have been reading the Parisian papers, from which the scent of power emanates, I have become so refined that I do not return greetings and, what's more, this amazes me not at all."

I admire this sentence for its immediacy. How did he establish such an idiosyncratic voice so vividly in so few words?

John Fahey, regarding the myth of talent in Vampire Vultures, page 49: "First of all, you have to have a fairly close communication with your feelings — with your unconscious. If you cannot learn to access your underground, no matter what you write or play, you will sound shallow and inane. That is because you are a shallow and inane person." And then, three pages later: "There's no such thing as talent. Just emotions and paying attention to them and hard work."

Here's a quote I've actually returned to a few times over the years, even reading it to an audience of writers once (who seemed heartened by it). Sadly, I've come to believe that it's only partially true, or even totally wrong, because it relies on the notion that all humanity's subconscious is divine. Which, it's not. Fahey's was, but that doesn't help the rest of us very much, does it?

÷ ÷ ÷

Patrick deWitt is the author of the critically acclaimed Ablutions: Notes for a Novel. Born in British Columbia, he has also lived in California, Washington, and Oregon, where he currently resides with his wife and son.

Books mentioned in this post

Patrick deWitt is the author of The Sisters Brothers

One Response to "SUBJECT: Underlining Text"

    christopher May 5th, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    i understand your aversion. i recently bought a used copy of a book after having read the first 50 pages of a friend's library copy. it was only after another friend was flipping through my copy that i noticed the first 30 pages had been marked up. it looked like someone had used a pencil and then erased her markings before getting rid of the book. the indentations that were left behind looked like worm trails in bark. it was maddening. i re-read everywhere i saw one.

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