Monday, August 15, 2005

Marginal Delinquents

It may be as well to observe, however, that just as the goodness of your true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability, so is nonsense the essential sense of the Marginal Note.
- Edgar Allen Poe

Do you like to write in your books?

You know, scribble little notes and asides in the margins to record your reactions to a section of the text you found particularly interesting?

The book collector in me winces at the thought. Not only would this drastically reduce the value of the book (unless the notes in question were by the author or some other noted celebrity associate), it’s just plain unsightly. Words in a book deserve the dignity of ink, not some unsharpened No.2 pencil.

Which is not to say that there isn’t some appeal in buying a cheap paperback reading copy of something that’s been decorated this way from back to front, usually by an earnest student. Oftentimes the bulk of these notes will be found on the inside front cover, where they may be easily referred to by the scholar-to-be.

But I want to talk about a very specific kind of book defacement today: comments by readers that simply can’t help themselves. They have either found the text to be so transcendent or so incendiary that they have no choice but to comment in any space available. They may not even have bought the book in question – they may merely have browsed through a copy at their local bookstore and been so traumatized or uplifted that they feel the need to express themselves to someone, much like the original author. The ideal solution, of course, would be to reply with a book of one’s own, logically listing their points and arguments and throwing it into the public marketplace.

As this is not always the simplest or most immediate possibility, many readers take it upon themselves to comment in a more personal way.

I’ve recently been on a bit of a Hitchcock kick (try saying that five times fast), not watching his films but reading about him. So I’ve been buying a handful of used bios, ones that look interesting and that have more to say than just the naked facts as that can make for pretty dry reading.

His films have always fascinated me, as they have so many viewers, and I get the distinct feeling I’m gearing up to see what these pictures have to say to me as I approach late middle-age. I was always attracted by the iconography of his American films, but there was something deeper: the feeling that civilization is a mutual illusion that is only just barely being held together and that chaos is waiting for just a tiny opening to reveal the truth. On the other hand, maybe that’s how I remember them from my viewpoint now, because evil never really triumphs in a Hitchcock film (unless you count Vertigo, and who knows what we’re left with at the end of that most mysterious of cinematic romances). No matter how much danger or suspense is present in a Hitchcock film, justice always prevails in the end, like waking up from a nightmare. The end of North By Northwest skips the final rescue entirely and, with a clever edit, jumps us directly to safety.

Good and Evil are much more complex than that, of course, and Hitchcock was fascinated by the joints where they met, resembled each other, and worked together. Without the Hitchcock of Strangers On A Train or Shadow Of A Doubt, I doubt we’d have the David Lynch of Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. This is in direct contradiction to a critic I once knew who insisted to me that Lynch was such an original artist that he never borrowed anything from anyone, this after I pointed out a sight gag from Fire Walk With Me that seemed to be a direct steal from Jacques Tati, for whom the younger Lynch had a great enthusiasm.

There’s a great used bookstore about an hour away, in fact it’s on the way to the great buffet described here recently, and when we last stopped by I had a look around for any interesting Hitchcock books. Now there was one very basic large paperback, simply titled “The Films Of Alfred Hitchcock,” that merely ran down the films in order with excerpts of reviews and didn’t look like it had that much to offer. I’m flipping through it and I’m skimming the section on Marnie when something captures my eye. There’s a piece of text that looks a little irregular and is, in fact, a different color!

On closer examination, I can see what the previous owner had done. Right next to a line about Marnie being a “lazy, self-indulgent” piece of filmmaking, the outraged reader went to his typewriter whereupon, in all-capitalized red letters, he typed the word “BULLSHIT.”

He then carefully cut it out and pasted it next to the line in the Marnie review.

This particularly passionate Hitchcock fan was not about to allow that line about Marnie to stand without rebuttal. And so he (or she) made certain that, regardless of who ever picked up the book again, the reader would always be aware there was another point of view.

You’d have thought that alone would have been enough to make me buy it, but it didn’t. In fact, it reminded me of the time I’d been looking over the cheap, remaindered books at a local bookstore many, many years ago and came across a copy of William S. Burroughs’ Exterminator! Upon opening it you were met with the message, inscribed in pencil, “Manure in prose.”

I found this terribly entertaining but, once again, not enough to actually purchase it.

Now fast forward a month or so and I’m in the hospital for some mystery ailment which is manifesting itself in excruciating abdominal pain. A friend from the neighborhood comes to visit and he’s bearing get well gifts. One is an issue of National Lampoon and the other is a copy of Exterminator!

Well, of course I know where it’s come from but as I start to open it I’m thinking, “This can’t be that one.”

And it was. There, in gloriously scrawled pencil, was the now familiar “Manure in prose.”

My friend had bought it for me especially because of the inscription, which he figured I’d appreciate. He was right.

Of course, most of my friends were already aware that I enjoyed literary criticism.


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