Saturday, March 12, 2016

Margin Notes, Used Books

I'd read George Hillock's thoughts about writing and writing instruction in chunks. A chapter or essay here. An excerpt or quote there. 

An online seller shipped me Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice for a the cost of a cup of coffee. Bargain.

Inside, the margins are littered with notes. Sentences and phrases are underlined. At first, it felt like reading text through dirty glass. It distracted me. Sort of like someone muttering to me all throughout a film. Now, that dirty glass strikes me that it is closer to a bottle flung into the sea, and the margin notes are, well, my note--the message from the past.

As I began to fall into Hillock's line of reasoning, the notes in the margins become less distracting. I've come to see these notes as evidence of a person who was not a writer.  I recognize them because I have been there too. Maybe they were a teacher, maybe they were not. That is hard to glean. But I am fairly confident that I notice the questions and observations of a non-writer...which has made the experience of reading Hillocks, today, all the more fascinating.

The margin notes are still like someone muttering all throughout a film, but now it is like someone questioning and criticizing: "Oh, who would ever believe that! Nonsense. No one would ever be able to sneak onto the Titanic." 

I can feel the presence of an occasional Harumpf! and the shudder of a grouse in the brush.

For example, Hillocks writes, "...writing is a special craft that requires a trained professorate." The note in the margin asks, "How do you create or divine this?" 

A few pages later, Hillock writes, "The problem appears to be some combination of inadequate knowledge of what effective writing requires, absence of the strategies for producing it, and an assumption that 'people will know what I mean.'" And my margin-writer asks, "So what is the answer?"

Can I reach in through the text? If so, my hands would slip through time, grasp my new friend by the lapels, and shake him/her (gently) while pleading, "Write. At every turn of the page, and with every question you ask, the answer is almost always, write."

If it sounds like I am oversimplifying something, good. That is my intention. Sometimes, with good intentions, educators can turn obvious answers into a sticky taffy pull. 

It is as if we were hunting for light switches in windowless rooms where there is no electricity, only candles and flame. 

"There must be a switch somewhere."

There is no switch.

"Well, I'll just wait for a switch. Have one put in. There must be a way to put in a switch."

And we wait for switches when we, the teacher, have to strike matches. We have to touch flames to wicks. We have to come to a real, tangible, understanding of the work if we ever want to be able to teach by the light.

And so I am left wondering. How did this Hillocks book end up in my hands? Is the book like a bottle tossed into the sea? Was the person who scribbled all through this text...lost? Did they ever find the answer they were looking for?

Did they ever write?


  1. What an intriguing find. It would be interesting to run into a book like that. I admit I usually shy away from used books because I like to mark them up myself, but the marginalia you describe is fascinating. It would be interesting to have that window into someone else's mind.

  2. What a great mystery. You got two books for the price of one. The one you wanted and a mystery, or maybe like you said a bottle tossed upon the sea asking to be rescued. I like how you shared your thinking about the previous owner within the context of your reading.

  3. So interesting! I've never bought a used book with margin notes, but now I'll look forward to maybe one day getting one. There is supposedly a way to share margin notes using e-readers now, so you can have access to hundreds of other people's thoughts about the book you're reading - not as cool as actual handwritten notes. And you're right - the answer is to write. Thanks for the interesting post.

  4. In all fairness to the Margin Note Person, writing has been obfuscated and made (like other arts) into something inaccessible and unknowable to common people. Unless, of course, you happened to be in the process writing writing with Elbow and the likes. But academia has been slow to move off the high minded stuff.
    Honestly, the question of what is good writing and how do we know it if we encounter it has not been addressed -- not even asked enough.

  5. The margins are littered with notes:
    Scrawled love poems;
    Anguished understandings;
    Scribbled doodles of stick figures, dancing;
    A recipe for a dinner date;
    Lost phone numbers of dead telephone lines.
    The text dances at the margins,
    as if the book were a stage and the words,
    the music but not the show,
    and you and I, we pull up our chairs,
    watching in silence for the performance
    someone's pen wrote out,
    long ago, some other room,
    and we applaud.

    -Kevin, lifting a line for a poem as comment. I almost did it in the margins, using the Hypothesis annotation tool, but then worried you would not know it was there. Now, I think: that would be perfect symmetry ... to leave a poem about margins in the margins of your blog. Doing it.