"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Songs of the Pioneers song from TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon's old-fashioned newspaper column, cross-breeding watercolor, metaphors and journalism, for readers in more than 150 countries.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Underlining books

What do the insides of your books look like?

Are there lines and highlights in the texts? Have you written comments in the margins? Are there exclamation marks, checks, stars scribbled on the pages?

My favorite books seem so, and I started thinking about it as I was reading an old 1964--from 1934--book of letters from the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, loaned me this season by my chess  playing partner. He and a previous owner have underlined different passes, quoted other  authors, and jotted down ideas galore in the  brief 125 pages of the paperback edition. It is tattered with age, with thoughts, with love.  It's interesting, but I especially paid attention to the lines emphasized by those readers--skimming much of the other text.  When  I lend some of my books on writing to by students, they say they do the same, because I've marked them up a lot, for those ideas that spoke to me about writing, about teaching, about, well everything. Words underlined in a book tell you much about the person who underlined them.

I want to share some of Rilke's thoughts about life and art with you later. I think this habit of underlining may come from the old-timey preachers and men and women of faith who had read the Bible so much that all the faroite passages were underlined. I knew one old Bible scholar, Dr. Hugo McCord of OCC,  whose Bible was tattered with love and care and almost every line was underlined...and he had most of it memorized. He was not alone.

Of course now they've come out with all these fancy color-coded overlays in Bibles emphasizing ideas and so forth, labeling them study Bibles. It probably started with the red-letter editions of the King James Bible, putting the words of Christ in red. Dr. McCord, Brother George Mickey of the Albuquerque church of Christ, and many others didn't need them. To them,  every Bible was a study Bible and marked from long study and devotion.


Dad's Frederick Taubes book and my Whitman book

I guess that's where I picked up the habit, but now my underlining, my marking comes on books where there are phrases and ideas that apply to me, words written in beautiful and forceful ways, originally turned phrases, ideas presented I'd not thought of, points made I don't want to lose. College also contributed to that. I still have a textbook on Whitman from long ago, in a course taught by the beloved Dr. Frank Finney at what is now UCO, my notes are scribbled throughout, along with my comments, Finney's, and underlined lines and meters. The book is a treasure of art. I probably also inherited that from my dad, too. I now have his art books, and they're heavy with his underlines and exclamation marks. He was always a student of art. I have known some people who won't underline Bibles, because they think they're sacred. I disagree with that, but understand. But to me, the books with my underlinings and scribbles in them are my most valuable.

My writing and art books are marked the most, and those of my favorite writer, John McPhee. I never read a book of his that I don't have to circle words I don't understand, or think, "I wish I'd written that." Larry McMurtry's non-fiction is the same.

My book on Cezanne's composition, bought last year at McMurtry's used book store in Archer City, Booked Up

My autographed copy of McMurtry's
Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

When I sit down to read a book these days, and don't bring a pen...I invariably have to get up and go find one, because something just stands out and I don't want to lose it.
Not that I often go back, but it helps me connect with the writer, the thought, the page.

 That's a drawback of reading words on a blog or a Kindle. There are thoughts  that demand more that one read, that gain  power, are meant to be treasured, quoted, applied. Underlined passages in books become part of me.


  1. I too love to mark up my books. Then, when I go back to it, it doesn't just feel like a book, but a friend I'm revisiting!

  2. I want to come back and reread this post when I am not bleary eyed. I, too, love marked up books. Most of mine are that way...I even buy art and poetry books online, in hopes that they have notes in the margin!! Great to see what others are thinking! I had to laugh right out loud when I read where you wrote in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry...that Whitman has a Christ complex...I think that is how you stated it! He has made himself equal to Jesus...Oh, Walt...he really had an ego that was simply not containable! This is a great post, Terry!!! You always make me think, while entertaining me. Thanks!!!

  3. I write in my books also. If I DON'T use a star, exclamation point, brackets, or lines then I probably didn't like it much. As I child I was taught to respect books, and I think this is one of the highest forms.

    It's the only kind of journal I keep regularly.

  4. I love this! My fav books are marked up too!