The People’s Library

by Kate Maruyama

I take a lot of books out of the library. When I was younger, I didn’t like the idea of a book that had been used, recently, by someone who might have picked his or her nose, sneezed, cleaned his or her fingernails on the pages; by someone who might have read it in the bathroom.

But economy and necessity and becoming a student again after several years have brought me back to the library, and I’ve found an entirely new aspect to library books I’d ignored before.

The readers at Glendale Central Library are annotators. I recently finished a biography of Cary Grant gone over by an irate Angeleno, correcting street names and locations throughout. The funny thing is that he (I imagined an old man, perhaps a retired grip from the 1930s) frequently got it wrong. He was determined that the Pantages Theater was located on Broadway, not Hollywood. He crossed out every mention of Hollywood Blvd. and scrawled in “Broadway” in all caps…but curiously in pencil. He would write in a book boldly in pencil, but wouldn’t commit vandalism with ink.

My first reading of Kafka’s Metamorphosis was enhanced by a reader who, it seemed was having trouble getting the story. He or she used pen. For the first several pages every other line was underlined, in the manner of a college student highlighting…this stuff is important. The underlining stopped about five pages in and the question marks commenced. Then, points would be circled and labeled. “Symbolism” was a good one, but my favorite was the large patch consisting of two sentences involving Gregor’s reflections on being a bug, which was circled with “Humor” written in next to it in the margin. Apparently it was so amusing it had to be pointed out? Or did the reader suspect that it was meant to be humorous, but didn’t get it? A few more question marks and our reader gave up. I was disappointed. Maybe he or she was told it wouldn’t be on the exam, or they bunked out and got the Cliff notes. Or maybe she (and here I imagined a humorless blond bobbed law student dating an English major who had an interest in bringing her up to his level of fiction reading) broke up with the boyfriend who made her read it.

Then there are entire books with only one word or two words underlined or circled. It is usually a bafflingly unimportant word. “Regard.” “imbecile.” “township.” These have me constructing elaborate narratives to figure out what the reader was thinking. I thought of the girl in the movie HEATHERS who walked in front of a bus, who had circled the word “eskimo” in her copy of Moby Dick. Those left behind imbued the word with meaning and clues to her motives. It should be noted that annotators of the movie have pointed out that the word “eskimo” actually doesn’t appear in Moby Dick.

So while these little interruptions are sometimes annoying, and illegible notes scrawled in the corner of library books are bedevilingly distracting, I like that these annotations have created a participatory aspect to the process of reading. They illustrate that reading is not a passive act, it is an involved, thought-provoking give-and-take process. And that annotation isn’t limited to the big thinkers like Mark Twain It reminds me of why we started this site, to become, as writers, more active in our reading. To go beyond the story unfolding in front of us and to try to see how it works. If Twain could correct Kipling’s prose, we can at least be mindful of what we, as writers, admire of an author’s work, and what we might do differently.


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