How scribbling in the margins transformed my reading

At some point last year, I bought a used copy of “Camera Lucida”. In this slim text, the French literary theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes exposes his theory of photography as a collaboration between the spectator and the watched, centered on what Barthes calls the punctum: the (often marginal) detail that springs from an image and “stings” the viewer with a strange and often inexplicable emotion.

Looking at a family portrait from the 1920s, Barthes looks at a middle-aged woman in strappy pumps whom he suddenly realizes is wearing the exact type of braided gold necklace that once belonged to his unmarried aunt. The necklace belongs to both the woman’s life and hers. So the punctum, as Barthes writes, “is what I add to the photograph and yet what is already there”.

In my copy, that last sentence has been both underlined and in square brackets. In the margins, someone wrote “yes! In fact, as I read the book, I found that on every other page this former owner had found something to note, marking line after line with a thick pencil, listing Barthes’ arguments, and leaving plenty of comments. While reading Barthes’ book, I could not help but read this other reader as well. I picked up my pencil and began to write alongside the ghost reader.

The habit was new to me. Before the pandemic, I wasn’t used to writing in books: my thoughts seemed so pitiful when confronted with the words on the page. Having a book spoke to a whole chain of events – writing, selling, publishing, printing – before which I felt unworthy.

But when New York City closed in March 2020, so did my sense of myself and my place in the world. For several months, I rarely left my apartment, except to see an ex or take long night walks, when the city was quiet and there was no one on the streets. The extent of my world has not grown larger than my neighborhood. I saw almost no one, remembered little, reviewed “Le Silence des Agneaux” four times in two months. Even my daily reading has become a self-destructive chore, entire pages scrolling past without my remembering. My mind had become a sieve.

Every sentence seemed more alive, every word more concrete, as long as I wrote on it, on it, around it.

That summer I picked up “The Old Child,” a short story by German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck, which I was reading for an essay. It’s a strange, opaque story about a seemingly teenage girl who is taken to an orphanage because she refuses to speak. While this is certainly not my favorite from Erpenbeck, it marks a change in my reading life: on page 60, I marked a date – February 13 – and then added an exclamation point. I made an asterisk at the top of the next page and wrote: “Forgetting as a kind of protection”.

These are easy comments, which I feel embarrassed to share. But these are the first notes I wrote in a published book. When I picked up my next book, I was underlining key sentences, separating vivid paragraphs, noting the margins. Every sentence seemed more alive, every word more concrete, as long as I wrote on it, on it, around it. My margins became a series of takes on the placid softness of the page. I took my daily experience one silly little mark at a time.

Sometimes I underline what is denser and more difficult in a novel; sometimes anything that is pretty, or ugly, or awkward. I find my eye drawn to particular phrases: the way Flaubert describes the stiff, wrinkled faces of “people with failed ambitions”, or Gillian Rose’s assertion that “there is no democracy in any romantic relationship: only mercy ”. Sometimes I add my own notes in the margins, although they are rarely substantial. Reading a later volume of Proust in the middle of a breakup, I filled the margins with uncomfortable ellipses, onomatopetic moans, and nothing else.

I would love to have some deep thoughts to tell, but they don’t always come to my mind when reading. My notes are like the rings of a tree, trapping the atmosphere of a given moment. Like Barthes’ necklace, their presence resonates far more than their actual content, as they remind me of myself. What you bring to a work interacts with what is always there, and what you bring changes all the time.

Wait long enough, and what you bring becomes the text. These notes resonate because they fix a person’s thoughts so completely in time that they no longer read like yours. Why did I care so much about February 13th or the protective qualities of oblivion? I really do not know. And yet, in the summer of 2020, the two questions seemed so important that they completely changed my reading habits: my notes transformed me from a passive reader into a thinker among other thinkers.

As I reread “Camera Lucida” for this essay, I wasn’t always sure who made which mark, which of us left which mark. What were Barthes’ ideas, and which were mine, and which were those of the phantom reader? Does it matter? The book and the marginalia are both acts of writing, collaborations between author and subject, text and reader – precisely the kind of common sense fabrication to which Barthes refers. We all scribble together in the margins, hoping that one day our thoughts can become a full text.

Robert Rubsam is a freelance writer and critic. He last wrote for the Bog Bodies Magazine.

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