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Sunday Marginalia
Of Book Abuse and Other Pleasures

Schott, the abuser

The back-page of Sunday’s Times Book Review is more interesting than the front page, devoted, this week, to Milan Kundera’s latest in a series of meditations on the novel. The back-page essay, by Ben Schott, about whose “Original Miscellany” the London Times once wrote was a “collection of spectacularly useless information [that] has become an inexplicable publishing phenomenon, translated into 14 languages and selling more than 600,000 copies,” and whose “Schott’s Almanac,” just published, “is embarrassingly addictive.” Schott says he had a “startlingly brief career in advertising” before, one assumes, embarking on his current ride as a writer of addictive miscellany, of which the New York Times gives us a brief glimpse in Sunday’s “Confessions of a Book Abuser,” which begins this way:

I have to admit I was flattered when, returning to my hotel room on the shores of Lake Como, a beautiful Italian chambermaid took my hand. I knew that the hotel was noted for the attentiveness of its staff. Surely, though, such boldness elevated room service to a new level. Escorting me to the edge of the crisply made bed, the chambermaid pointed to a book on my bedside table. “Does this belong to you?” she asked. I looked down to see a dog-eared copy of Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies” open spread-eagle, its cracked spine facing out. “Yes,” I replied. “Sir, that is no way to treat a book!” she declared, stalking out of the room.

Schott then goes on to describe the joys and many means of book abuse, all of which, with one exception, I heartily agree with. Books aren’t decorations. They’re not three-dimensional wallpaper to impress guests or lift the color of the couch’s pillows or muffle the sounds from the neighbor’s donkeyish outbursts against his wife and children (although they come in handy on that score). They’re objects of desire and usefulness that ought to be manhandled any way one pleases with very few limits. Like Schott, I draw the line at highlighters of any color, though those stupid enough to use a highlighter in a book, besides running the risk of acidly eliminating the print over time, tend to use the most disgusting colors on the planet: canary yellow and that indescribable pink. Writing in books, on the other hand, is one of the great pleasures in life (I do so with a turquoise pen, a habit picked up decades ago from the vaguely accurate notion that that certain blue would not reproduce when photocopied). No book in my librarty is spared—not the beautiful ones of the French Pléïade nor those of the Library of America, though in both those cases I use pencil instead of turquoise blue as a small concession to the classics. Unlike Schott, I’m against dog-earing books, if only because over time the ear tends to fall off, and even if it doesn’t, the effect on a book is aesthetically similar to that of highlighters. I do buy hardbacks almost exclusively to ensure longevity, not just for me but so the books can make it down into my children’s hands, and hopefully their children’s, if they’re not embarrassed by the marginalia: what I write in my books’ margins tends invariably to the embarrassing, and not just because what I wrote twenty years ago splurged with presumption and immaturity, but because nothing has changed since. I’ve reduced my note-taking to a more efficient set of symbols and codes, but even the exclamations and retorts that found their way margins last week are embarrassing to read again, or to avoid repeating: I’m a marginal addict. Is all this defacing books? “It is notable,” Schott concludes, “that those who abuse their own books through manhandling or marginalia are often those who love books best. And surely the dystopia of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is more likely avoided through the loving abuse of books than through their sterile reverence. Not that I expect the chambermaid to agree.”

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