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How Scribbling in the Margins Transformed My Reading

At some point in the past year, I bought a used copy of “Camera Lucida.” In this slim text, the French literary theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes lays out his theory of photography as a collaboration between viewer and viewed, centered on what Barthes calls the punctum: the (often marginal) detail that leaps out of an image and “pricks” the viewer with a strange and often inexplicable emotion.

Viewing a family portrait from the 1920s, Barthes gazes at a middle-aged woman in strapped pumps who he suddenly realizes is wearing the exact type of braided gold necklace that once belonged to his unmarried aunt. The necklace belongs at once to the life of the woman and to his own. Therefore the punctum, as Barthes writes, “is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.”

In my copy, this last sentence has been both underlined and bracketed. In the margins someone has written “yes!” In fact, as I read through the book, I discovered that on every other page this previous owner had found something worth noting, marking line after line with a thick pencil, listing out Barthes’s arguments and leaving copious commentary. As I read Barthes’s book, I could not help reading this other reader as well. I picked up my pencil and began to write alongside the phantom reader.

The habit was a new one for me. Before the pandemic, I was not accustomed to writing in books: My thoughts seemed so pitiful when put up against the words on the page. The fact of a book spoke to a whole chain of events — writing, selling, editing, printing — before which I felt unworthy.

But when New York City closed down in March 2020, so did my sense of self and place in the world. For several months I rarely left my apartment other than to see an ex or take long nighttime walks, when the city was quiet and no one was on the streets. The ambit of my world became no larger than my neighborhood. I saw almost no one, retained little, rewatched “The Silence of the Lambs” four times in two months. Even my daily reading became a self-defeating slog, whole pages slipping by without my remembering them. My mind had become a sieve.

Every sentence seemed more vivid, every word more concrete, as long as I was writing on, over, around it.

Sometime that summer I picked up “The Old Child,” a novella by the German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck, which I was reading in preparation for an essay. It is a strange, opaque story about a seemingly adolescent girl who is taken to an orphanage because she refuses to speak. While certainly not my favorite of Erpenbeck’s, it marks a shift in my reading life: On Page 60, I marked a date — Feb. 13 — and then added an exclamation point. I made an asterisk on the top of the next page and wrote, “Forgetting as a kind of protection.”

These are facile comments, which I feel embarrassed to share. But they are the first notes I ever wrote in a published book. When I picked up my next book, I was underlining key phrases, sectioning off vivid paragraphs, notating the margins. Every sentence seemed more vivid, every word more concrete, as long as I was writing on, over, around it. My marginalia became a series of handholds on the placid smoothness of the page. I took hold of my daily experience one silly little mark at a time.

Sometimes I underline whatever is densest and most difficult in a novel; sometimes whatever is pretty, or ugly, or clumsy. I find my eye drawn to particular phrases: the way Flaubert describes the stiff, creased faces of “people of failed ambitions,” or Gillian Rose’s claim that “there is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy.” Sometimes I add my own notes in the margins, though they are rarely of substance. Reading a later volume of Proust amid a breakup, I filled the margins with uncomfortable ellipses, onomatopoetic groans and little else.

I wish I had profound thoughts to relate, but they don’t always occur to me at the time of reading. My notes are like the rings of a tree, trapping the atmosphere of a given moment. Like Barthes’s necklace, their presence lends far more resonance than their actual content, because 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 are resonant because they fix a person’s thoughts so thoroughly in time that they no longer read as your own. Why did I care so much about Feb. 13 or the protective qualities of forgetting? I really don’t know. And yet, in the summer of 2020, both questions seemed so important that they changed my reading habits completely: My notes transformed me from a passive reader into a thinker among other thinkers.

Reading back through “Camera Lucida” for this essay, I was not always sure who made which mark, which of us left which note. Which were Barthes’s ideas, and which mine, and which the phantom reader’s? Does it matter? Both book and marginalia are acts of writing, collaborations between author and subject, text and reader — precisely the sort of communal-meaning making to which Barthes refers. We are all scribbling together in the margins, hoping that, one day, our thoughts might become a text all their own.

Robert Rubsam is a freelance writer and critic. He last wrote for the magazine about bog bodies.

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