I usually try to buy all of my books new. It isn’t because I necessarily like the crispness of the pages (which I do), or because I am a supporter of the publishing industry (which I am). These are admittedly added bonuses, but the main reason why I purchase books new is to escape the insidious chattering of the book’s former readers, namely through marginalia. I do not want mystery Reader One’s thoughts on what the dog food is a metaphor for, nor do I care that mystery Reader Two felt the man with a limp was “scary!!!” These are discoveries I prefer to find—or not—on my own.
As such, I was extremely disappointed when I was unable to locate a reasonably priced new copy of the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction for my online writing class. In truth, I could find some new copies, but none that matched the ISBN that the university indicated on their “Required Reading” list. I took a chance and ordered a “Used – Very Good” copy through the university bookstore website, believing—erroneously—that “Very Good” meant the pages would not be littered with the comments, thoughts, highlights, musings, speculations, and condescending judgments of former readers. Unless the university bookstore believes it is “very good” for its students to know that one of the book’s previous owners felt a character “spends sooo much time talking about Henry,” I have to wonder if the bookstore even bothered to flip through the pages of the book before declaring it “Very Good.”
This is how I began reading David Sedaris’s essay “Repeat After Me.” Sedaris’s humorous essay explores his visit to Winston-Salem to tell his sister, Lisa, that one of his books had been optioned for a movie. Sedaris’s book (the potential movie) is a memoir piece that features his family—including Lisa—so Sedaris wanted to tell his sister in person that an actress may play her on the big screen. While traveling to his sister’s place in the essay, Sedaris reminisces about the “roles” he and his sister had been assigned growing up that—in Sedaris’s words— “effectively told us who we were.” As children, Lisa played the role as the one in the family with the most potential, while Sedaris was viewed with much lowered expectations. Later in life, as they grew and matured, Sedaris and his sister found themselves playing nearly the opposite roles.
As I settled into my sofa to begin reading Sedaris’s essay, I felt my excitement begin to grow. This was the first thing I had read by Sedaris and, as of late, I had been hearing his name quite often since he was in my city for another (different) book signing. I opened the anthology to the beginning of the essay “Repeat After Me.” I immediately tried to immerse myself with Sedaris’s brief bio and the start of his essay, but the word “ALLUSION” was printed in pencil over the top word in the first sentence, as if calling out in a neon-blinking sign that said “LOOK HERE!” I did my best to ignore the “allusion,” but I soon found myself flipping through the pages for a marginalia preview.
As far as I can tell, based on the pencil/pen type, handwriting and diction, there were at least three distinct former owners who felt obligated to critique the grammar, make snarky comments about the characters, bullet themes, and incessantly underline text (in ink, no less). While I did get into the rhythm and the humor of Sedaris’s essay, I ended up finding the marginalia equally humorous. I normally consider marginalia to be simply irritating, but perhaps I was primed to find their comments funny because the essay itself was categorized as “humor.” Thus, I began to read the marginalia as its own kind of “text”—a text that is superimposed on Sedaris’s text and full of meta-cognitive awareness.
Reader One was so exasperated by Sedaris’s choice of grammar and consumed with his/her judgments about Sedaris that she failed—in my humble opinion—to take note of the truly funny moments in the essay. Reader One chastised Sedaris “Why is his superlative in lower case?!?!” when Sedaris wrote that “to this day, as far as my family is concerned, I’m still the one most likely to set your house on fire.” Given that superlatives—as a general rule—aren’t supposed to be upper case, Reader One’s comment had me wondering whether or not she is the one “most likely to set your house on fire” in her family. In the same paragraph, when Sedaris wrote that while he accepted “ lowered expectations, Lisa fought hard to regain her former title,” Reader One snipped as if she had known Sedaris’s family her entire life, “Easier for him – always been that way.”
Yet, for some mysterious reason (that I, personally, find incredibly funny), all of the Readers who came before me failed to comment on the part of essay where Sedaris’s sister “land[ed] a job in the photo department of a large international drug company, where she took pictures of germs, viruses, and people reacting to germs and viruses.” Sedaris was telling the reader about his sister’s varied—and seemingly unrelated—series of jobs. At that line, “people reacting to germs and viruses,” I imagine people reacting with mock horror at the sight of an enlarged squiggly Ebola virus, and doubling over with their hands clutching their stomach at the sight of salmonella bacteria. I imagine people “reacting” by running in slow motion, yelling “Nooooooo….” for the benefit of the photography camera, pushing everyone else away to escape the horror they saw through the microscope in the Petri dish. Alternately, to take a more somber view of the line “people reacting to germs and viruses,” I imagine people laying in a hospital bed or dry heaving over a toilet. There is so much imagery—so much potential “funny”—bound up in that one tiny line, yet the book’s former Readers chose to ignore that line and, instead, underline the fact Sedaris’s sister earned “an English degree.” Reader One later noted in a space between paragraphs, “Lisa throws herself into things she really isn’t passionate about.” Yes, Reader One, I agree—that part is very clear.
After initially looking at marginalia with disdain, I now have to admit there is more to it than irritating spoiler alerts and banal judgments. It is like a two, three, or (in my case) four-way conversation about an author’s work. It is the benefit of a book club without having to get out of your car. I no longer view marginalia with complete disdain—but I still prefer to read a “clean” copy first. Moreover, I am sure it is only matter of time before someone will mock my marginalia as well, and wonder why in the world I drew a smiley face next to the line about people reacting to germs and viruses.