Monday, September 3, 2007

Toward an Ethics of Seeing, or, Against Underlining

I'm down to about eleven visitors per day at Q-Majin?, which is just about right. Now we can get serious.

At one time or another, most people have read a book closely enough to feel the impulse to underline -- I've even managed to concoct a little system for myself of underlines, double-underlines, check marks, and exaggeratedly huge exclamation points in the margin. Our marginalia is evidence of a process of selection and reveals our personal interests and biases quite intimately (after all, you don't let just anybody read your personal copy of Leaves of Grass). If you've been underlining long enough to revisit an old favorite, you may be surprised to find out just how immature, silly, romantic, or naive your earlier markings seem to be. On a second reading, you might even use a different color pen to denote "second reading," and find yourself underscoring passages that you had missed altogether on a first reading. I've even had occasion to write meta-marginalia, where I comment on my own earlier commentary.

Now consider why we underline. If I remember my first forays into underlining semi-accurately, my intention was to record what I believed to be a special insight so that, in case I revisited the text, I would not miss that special insight. Our underlinings are broken branches or bread crumbs left behind in the woods on the outside chance that we may discover ourselves going round in circles.

But here is my literary turn: underlining is to reading as perception is to life. That is: this process of selection that weaves itself into our reading habits is almost perfectly symmetrical to those habits and preferences that make up our precious personalities--even our identities.

When I am forced (by vocation!) to re-read a single narrative more than a few times, I find that my underlinings become impediments to understanding, rather than helping me to recall special insight. Indeed, my most recent re-read of Moby-Dick effectively involved reading all that I had not previously underlined.

When I first moved to Indiana from Michigan six years ago, I spent a whole weekend driving around my new hometown. Within a month, I knew where all the potholes were on my route to work, and within a year, I had a map of the city laid out with functional accuracy in my memory -- in other words, I had read my town, and underlined my special insights.

But as time goes by I begin to feel a (GRE word alert!) torpor, a general malaise, some pangs of apathy, bouts of ennui. Inevitably, I declare, "This town sucks."

I hope my moral is clear by now, and I will leave the conclusion to the gods of Et cetera. I have wanted to explain the idea of an "ethics of seeing," where "noticing" comes under force of the will. I hope this little essay lays some groundwork. More in the future.

So: stop underlining so much -- or, re-read what you haven't underlined! An example:

Incredibly, I had read Emerson's essay "Circles" at least twice and not underlined this part until just now:
Valor consists in the power of self-recovery, so that a man cannot have his flank turned, cannot be out-generalled, but put him where you will, he stands. This can only be by his preferring truth to his past apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of it, from whatever quarter; the intrepid conviction that his laws, his relations to society, his Christianity, his world, may at any time be superseded and decease.
And, hmm... come to think of it, maybe I won't underline it just now.


Anonymous said...

I think Michael had a post a few weeks back about how he stores favorite quotes he comes across into Blogger, then writes about them later. Sometimes he'll re-read the quote and think, "How was this ever significant?"

I do look at literature as a landmark. One day you'll sail past it again...not over it...but a few miles from it, pull out your telescope and say, "Wow. I was dumb." or "Man, that was awesome the first time I read it."

I like to put preemptive things in the margin--questions to my future self, or even better--my favorite is in my copy of "Tintern Abbey" in which I wrote "Never forget how perfect this poem was right now or you are on the wrong track."

I have a new theory of everything right now. Are we simply seeking the "high" of revelation? Because I never like a poem more than the first time it reveals itself to me. What's going to happen when literature stops being so surprising? You start thinking about "contexts" and "authors" instead of beauty?

Or will it ever stop being so surprising?

Casey said...

When it starts to bore me is when I start to write my own book...

You, apparently, are already bored. It takes me a little while longer, with reading as with most things.

P-Town said...

Casey. This has nothing to do with your blog. I think I am heading back to Purdue for my MBA. I may need some insight onto the applying and have some questions. Can you shoot me an email at when you get a chance. Thanks