Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Magic Mountain

My ten great books #3: The Magic Mountain

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The Magic Mountain

Whenever I think of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, I always begin with the blankets. They’re a pair of lovely camel-hair blankets, “extra long and wide, in a natural beige fabric that was delightfully soft to the touch,” used by the residents of a sanitarium in the Alps while lounging on their balconies for the daily rest cure, which can last for hours. They certainly sound cozy:

Whether it was the texture of the cushions, the perfect slant of the back support, the proper height and width of the armrests, or simply the practical consistency of the neck roll—whatever it was, nothing could possibly have offered more humane benefits for a body at rest than this splendid lounge chair.

If you can relate to the appeal of those blankets—and of their promise of a life spent in blissful inactivity—you can begin to grasp what makes this novel so fascinating, despite its imposing appearance. As I’ve mentioned before, The Magic Mountain may be the least inviting of all major twentieth-century novels: it lacks the snob appeal of Ulysses or Proust, its structure is classical and crystalline, and a plot summary doesn’t exactly make it sound like a page-turner. The first necessary step is a leap of the imagination, a willingness to acknowledge the part of yourself that, like the young Hans Castorp, is drawn to the idea of giving up all advancement, all ambition, all action, for the sake of a life spent in the confines of a comfortable chair. Hans’s reasoning may not be airtight, but it’s hard to deny its power, especially in the decade before the First World War:

On the whole, however, it seemed to him that although honor had its advantages, so, too, did disgrace, and that indeed the advantages of the latter were almost boundless.

In the end, Hans, a perfectly healthy young man, ends up staying at the sanitarium for seven years. Of course, both he and the reader soon find that this apparent retreat into inactivity is secretly a plunge into something else. Despite its unlikely subject matter, The Magic Mountain vibrates on every page with life, intelligence, and insight. Mann likes to remind us, a bit too insistently, that Hans is “ordinary,” but really, as Harold Bloom points out, he’s immensely likable and curious, and you come to identify with him enormously. The story in which he finds himself has often been called a novel of ideas, and it is, but it’s much more: Mann stuffs it with compelling set pieces—Walpurgis Night, Hans’s nearly fatal misadventure in the snowstorm, the séance, the duel between Naptha and Settembrini—that would be high points in any novel, and it isn’t hard to see why the book was a massive bestseller in its time. Like Proust, Mann has useful insights into a dazzling variety of subjects, ranging from medicine to music to the nature of time, even as he depicts a world in which these ideas are on the verge of being destroyed. (As Clive James wrote: “The worst you can say about Thomas Mann is that his ego was so big he took even history personally; but at least he knew it was history.”) The characters are rendered with uncanny vividness: when you’re done, you feel as if you’ve passed half a lifetime in their company, and the memory is charged with nostalgia, longing, and regret. It took me a long time to come around to this book, and it sat unread on my shelf for years. When I finally started it for real, it was with a distinct sense of obligation. And what I found, much to my surprise, was that it was the novel for which I’d been searching my entire life.

Written by nevalalee

May 10, 2017 at 9:00 am

“It was nothing more than a whisper…”

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"Maddy straightened up..."

Note: This post is the twenty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 27. You can read the previous installments here.

One of the first rules that most aspiring writers are encouraged to follow, along with such chestnuts as “Show, don’t tell,” is that the story should be driven by the protagonist’s actions and decisions. As obvious as this all sounds, the number of unpublished novels or short stories that founder on a passive hero is large enough that it probably bears repeating. Not every good story needs to be built around a protagonist with the wit or resources of a James Bond, and some of my favorite novels, like The Magic Mountain, center on characters who are all but defined by their passivity. But it’s still a useful baseline, and if you scratch a seemingly passive protagonist, you’ll often find that he or she is more active than it might first appear. Hans Castorp withdraws from the world, but it’s still a conscious choice, and he remains active throughout the novel in small but meaningful ways, whether in his attempts to get to know Clavdia or in his efforts to survive his ill-advised excursion in the snow. And while John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom may seem utterly hapless, he’s brimming with unfulfilled needs and desires, and although he addresses them in unproductive ways, he’s still defined by his frequently self-destructive actions. It’s no accident that the first novel in the series is called Rabbit, Run.

Really, though, as with all writing “rules,” the proof rests in the outcome. Thinking in terms of an active protagonist is less important in itself then in the material it generates, and you usually find that when you structure each scene around a clearly defined action on the part of the central character, you get a more interesting story. In this blog, I come back repeatedly to David Mamet’s idea of a story as a series of concrete objectives, simply because it’s a machine for producing workable plots. Much of writer’s block is caused by the author’s inability to figure out what happens next, and choosing to make the next plot point, whatever it is, emerge from an objective and its logical pursuit is a useful sieve for deciding between possibilities—or for generating them in the first place. And it doesn’t need to be anything big: Kurt Vonnegut famously noted that a character’s initial objective can be something as simple as a glass of water. (“Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”) Like any rule, it deserves to be broken whenever the story demands it. But in general, an active protagonist is both a courtesy to the reader and a way to get the writer from first page to last. Writing is hard enough in itself that a smart author will tilt the odds wherever he or she can, and making sure that the hero is driving the action is as effective a trick as exists.

"It was nothing more than a whisper..."

And it’s especially useful in stories that seem to resist it. A thriller, for instance, would appear to lend itself naturally to active heroes, and it’s easier when your lead character is a criminal, a cop, or anyone whose life depends on a proactive engagement with the world. Yet many of the most important—and beloved—stories in the genre depend on the opposite: an ordinary man or woman thrust into circumstances beyond his or her control. We’re more likely to identify with someone whose life is initially as mundane as our own, and the transition between the everyday world and one where life and death hang in the balance is one of the most productive conventions for any writer to mine. The issue, obviously, is that an everyman character doesn’t go looking for trouble: it’s thrust upon the protagonist from the outside. This means, at least at the beginning, that the hero isn’t in control, and whatever decisions he or she makes have little bearing on whether the situation becomes better or worse. If the writer isn’t careful, this can easily turn into a victim story or an idiot plot. But it’s precisely at such moments that a skilled author needs to be especially alert, and to look for meaningful action for the protagonist even more relentlessly than in a story built around a conventional hero. It’s a challenge, yes, but a plot that requires the writer to think harder than usual is almost invariably a good thing.

In Eternal Empire, for example, it would have been easy to portray Maddy as a victim: she’s constantly being manipulated by more powerful forces, both visible and invisible, and she has few resources on which to fall back aside from her own intelligence. Chapter 27 represents a low point: she’s been kidnapped, held in the back of a car in the middle of nowhere, and she’s about to be blackmailed into becoming a pawn in a conspiracy she doesn’t fully understand. She’s more of a victim here than she’ll be anywhere else in the series. As a result, when the time came to write it, I tried hard to find ways of preserving her integrity as an actor in the story, no matter how small they might be. Even with a hood over her head, she pays attention to her surroundings, and she even tries to keep track of the route the car takes, like they do in the movies—and the fact that she fails doesn’t take anything away from the attempt. After being released, she searches the car that brought her there for clues, and she makes some smart observations about it, even if most of what she does here has already been anticipated by her antagonists. She even thinks about smashing the car’s windows with a rock, but she doesn’t. Instead, she says a few quiet words to herself. We don’t hear them, and we don’t even know if they’re addressed to her abductors, to Maddy herself, or to someone else entirely. But to me, they were a vow that she wasn’t going to be used so easily. And by the end of the novel, we’ll discover that she wasn’t nearly as passive as she seemed…

Written by nevalalee

July 30, 2015 at 9:32 am

The confidence game

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Ludwig van Beethoven

Mastery comes in all shapes and sizes, but we’re often most impressed by the kind that announces itself to us from the start. Take Beethoven’s Emperor concerto. From that first, massive orchestral chord, followed by the piano’s cascading response, we know that we’re in the hands of a composer who is perfectly aware that he’s unlike any other man who ever lived. (Whenever I hear it, I think of a slightly restructured version of that famous quote from Douglas Adams: “Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe, Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human, and Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven.”) The same is true of the opening of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, with its threefold declaration of purpose that manages, even after endless listenings, to seem both inevitable and like nothing else you’ve heard before. And in both cases, it’s the expression of the composer’s confidence that grabs the listener, an intuitive sense that only a lifetime of thought and exploration could have resulted in such monumental simplicity.

In film, the same impulse sometimes lies behind the opening shot, which serves as a statement of intention. Kubrick—a meticulously intelligent craftsman who also loved showy, obvious effects—always strove to seize the audience from the first frame, and each of his films from 2001 onward begins with an unforgettable image. As in most other ways, Kubrick was ahead of his time: movies these days seem increasingly obsessed with their first five minutes, to the point where they dispense with opening credits altogether in their rush to deliver that first big moment. This is largely a response to the fact that we’re just as likely to catch movies at home than to see them in a theater. Once we’ve paid for our tickets and are seated in the dark with a row of strangers between ourselves and the exit, we’re likely to give a movie the benefit of the doubt for at least the length of the first act. If we’re watching it streaming on Netflix, we’re more liable to treat it like a television show, which has only a few minutes to grab our attention. And if it fails, we turn to our phones.

Stanley Kubrick

As a result, movies and television shows have become more front-loaded than ever, and the same trends—the omission of main titles, the emphasis on an early narrative hook, the need to blow us away with action and violence in the opening scene—can be observed in both. It’s even started to affect the novels we read, which, as Jonathan Franzen once noted, are no longer competing just with other books for the reader’s attention. Even literary fiction is increasingly expected to read like a mainstream bestseller; the opening of a book like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is all but indistinguishable from that of a paperback thriller. Yet this can also be a narrative miscalculation. Playwrights have known for a long time that it’s a mistake to start the play on a moment of high drama: you can afford to spend a few minutes introducing the viewer to your world before disrupting it, and a dramatic development holds more weight if you’ve established a baseline of normality. Start off too fast, and you’ve got nowhere to go, and the rest of the play can feel weighted down by the depressing realization that it’s never going to top its opening moments.

In his indispensable guidebook Adventures of the Screen Trade, William Goldman offers a long sample of a misconceived opening for a screenplay—a beautiful girl running for her life through a forest to escape a disfigured giant—and sums up his analysis of its faults by saying: “Well, among other things, it’s television.” But it’s even worse than that. Listen to the Emperor concerto again, and you know that it opens the way it does because Beethoven is superbly confident in his own gifts. The first twenty minutes of your average action movie speaks to the opposite, a kind of desperation, concealed by gunshots and relentless cuts, that the audience’s attention will stray for even a minute. It’s the difference between real confidence and, well, a confidence game. An aggressive beginning can be fine in its place, but it isn’t speed or even technical proficiency to which viewers respond: it’s that confidence. And they can sense its absence even through a flurry of activity, even as they sense its presence in openings as leisurely as those of Tokyo Story or The Magic Mountain or The Goldberg Variations. Show them confidence, and they’ll follow you anywhere, but without it, not even the loudest opening chord in the world can convince them to listen.

The challenge of honest optimism

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Sheila Sim and Eric Portman in A Canterbury Tale

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your favorite entertainment based on people making the world a better place?”

When I was in my twenties, I had a theory that most novelists my age—including myself—were more or less faking it. Until you turned thirty, I thought, even a spectacular literary debut was usually just a pastiche of similar works the author had read and internalized, rather than a reflection of real experience. You had to have lived a little longer, and done something besides spend all your time writing, to express something meaningful about the world; until then, you were left with technically clever imitations, some admittedly more graceful or ingenious than others, of the books you’d loved yourself. Now that I’m in my thirties, I’ve modified my opinion: I suspect that we’re all faking it. (This isn’t confined to writing either: it’s a terrifying realization about being a grownup in general. As the father says in Calvin and Hobbes, “I don’t think I’d have been in such a hurry to reach adulthood if I’d known the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed.”) In their first drafts, at least, most writers don’t really know what the story is about, so they end up writing a kind of extended simulation of the novel they want to see, a patchwork of good guesses and impersonations that they hope to revise into the real thing.

And it strikes me that a lot of what we call “insight” in fiction is really a verbal strategy, a reflection of a basically neutral ability with words, just as an invalid argument seems more convincing if the author knows how to write. A strong prose style is no guarantee of truth, and at its worst, it can hide weaknesses and gaps in logic that would be more obvious if less artfully concealed—which may be why serious philosophy is such a chore to read. And while we’d all like to hope that we’ll come up with real insights in the process of putting together our thoughts, in the meantime, we have to find new ways of faking it. That’s why so many young writers can seem so cynical. Cynicism feels more mature, at first glance, than idealism; a dark, pessimistic perspective presents itself as a hard realization at which the writer has arrived after passing through many intermediate stages. Of course, that doesn’t need to be the case at all. Reflexive cynicism is as much of an intellectual retreat as unthinking optimism, but it hides itself a little better, which may be why it’s so attractive to writers who want to seem more worldly than they really are. As Zapp Brannigan says on Futurama, when trying to convince Kiff to smoke for the first time: “Teenagers all smoke, and they seem pretty on the ball.”

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

That’s why I’ve come to treasure works of art, regardless of their ethical or philosophical point of view, that seem like the product of earned experience. I’m aware, obviously, that I may just be responding to a particularly convincing act of sleight of hand, but it doesn’t feel that way: there’s something in really great works of art or literature that takes us by the hand to show us that we’re in the presence of a genuinely alert intelligence. That’s true of books as different as The Magic Mountain and Catch-22, or movies with as little in common as Last Tango in Paris and My Neighbor Totoro. Sometimes a really honest exploration of the world can end up in a place of despair, but it’s easy to tell the difference between a work of art that ends up in the darkness because it has no other choice, like Caché, and one that takes it as a fashionable starting point, like Fight Club. And I’ll take wisdom wherever I can find it, even if it ends up staking out the position, which may not be wrong, that existence is fundamentally meaningless. But such works are all the more precious, at least when it comes to getting through this life in one piece, when they express a basically optimistic view of the world.

Take, for instance, A Canterbury Tale. The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are wonderful for a lot of reasons—their wit, their inventiveness, their curiosity, their enormous visual energy—but what I’ve come to value in them most is their air of a wisdom that isn’t confined to the movie studio. Powell and Pressburger lived crowded, eventful lives, and their films are crammed with tiny moments of anecdote and observation, side by side with spectacular artifice, that speak to deep experience. When necessary, they don’t shy away from darkness or tragedy: The Red Shoes ends the way it does for a reason. Throughout it all, though, they remain sympathetic, humane, and attuned to a vision of what makes life worth living. A Canterbury Tale is both their gentlest and most radical work, a leisurely, nearly plotless slice of life that remains endlessly watchable because it’s so intensely observed. It was shot during World War II, which affects the lives of all the characters involved, and although it was clearly designed as a boost to morale, it winds up being much more. It’s propaganda, if you like, for the values of humor, simplicity, and forgiveness, and it ends so happily that I can’t help hoping that it’s true. But I wouldn’t believe in it at all if Powell and Pressburger hadn’t given me good reason to trust them in the first place.

The jet set

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SkyMall

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your favorite pop culture to enjoy on a plane?”

Whenever I end up on an airplane, I find myself torn between two competing impulses. On the one hand, for the next few hours, I’m in a kind of sanctuary, without any of the temptations I find online, in a reasonably comfortable chair with a minimum of distraction—at least back in the days before I was flying with a toddler—so it seems like a good time to catch up on a big, difficult book I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to read for years. This goal isn’t entirely unrealistic: in the past, I’ve gotten through the likes of Gravity’s Rainbow, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and most of Proust while traveling in foreign countries where I didn’t speak the language, and most of that reading took place on planes, trains, and other modes of transportation. On the other hand, there’s SkyMall, and movies on demand, and the seductive line of fat paperbacks at Barbara’s Books. And when you’re halfway across the ocean with thousands of miles between you and your destination, there are times when you want to relax with something less demanding.

In a way, a long airplane ride is a kind of laboratory for the way we read in general. A nourished reading life consists in some proportion of both masterpieces and worthwhile junk, and it’s a sad life that consists only of one or the other. As Robertson Davies once wrote:

Do not suppose, however, that I intend to urge a diet of classics on anybody. I have seen such diets at work. I have known people who have actually read all, or almost all, the guaranteed Hundred Best Books. God save us from reading nothing but the best.

On an airplane, these choices acquire more urgency, or at least they did once. As soon as you’ve selected your book or magazine, you’re stuck with it, and the decision can feel like a less weighty version of the desert island question. You may not have to live with this book forever, but if you’re three hours into a nine-hour flight, it sometimes seems that way. (I’m aware, of course, that with a Kindle and a good menu of inflight entertainment, your choices aren’t quite as limited these days, but I’ve found that my own approach to the question hasn’t changed.)

The Magic Mountain

Most of the time, I find myself splitting the difference, bringing one ambitious read while keeping something more accessible in reserve. On a trip to Hong Kong, I brought The Magic Mountain and James Clavell’s Noble House—the most massive of great trashy novels—and found myself totally enraptured by the former, although the Clavell worked as a nice backup option for my moments of downtime. More recently, while flying to Spain with a nine-month-old in tow, my choices were a couple of John D. MacDonald thrillers and The Little Lisper, the classic introduction to the Lisp programming language. The latter ended up being a particularly good choice, because I could prop it open on the tray table while holding a baby in my arms, working through one exercise at length without having to turn pages more than once every ten minutes. Later this year, I’m flying to Los Angeles for my brother’s wedding, and I’m already reserving a spot in my garment bag for The Death and Life of Great American Cities, along with a trashy novel to be determined later. Maybe Scruples? I’m not sure yet, but that’s part of the fun.

And it’s on an airplane that Pauline Kael’s great dictum—”Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them”—seems the most true. Critics, too, are a captive audience, forced to sit through whatever happens to be coming out that weekend whether they like it or not, so they’re primed to appreciate good trash when it comes their way. On an intercontinental flight or a long bus trip, the difference between a great pageturner (Without Remorse) and a mediocre one (The Plot) is rarely more clear. It’s just you and the book, and your contract with the author is laid out in stark terms. I want the book to excite and entertain me, or at least repay my investment in time with something worthwhile, and if it fails, I’m up a creek. Sometimes, I’ll put it down with resignation and start eyeing the crossword in the inflight magazine. But when it grabs me to the point where I’m surprised that it’s already time to transfer in Atlanta, it feels like a validation, in miniature, of why I read in the first place. Books, like planes, are made to transport us, and a good trip is one in which both get us there in one piece.

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2014 at 9:39 am

My ten great books #3: The Magic Mountain

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The Magic Mountain

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

Whenever I think of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, I always begin with the blankets. They’re a pair of lovely camel-hair blankets, “extra long and wide, in a natural beige fabric that was delightfully soft to the touch,” and they’re used by the residents of a sanitarium in the Alps while lounging on their balconies for their daily rest cure, which can last for hours. They certainly sound cozy:

Whether it was the texture of the cushions, the perfect slant of the back support, the proper height and width of the armrests, or simply the practical consistency of the neck roll—whatever it was, nothing could possibly have offered more humane benefits for a body at rest than this splendid lounge chair.

If you can understand the appeal of those blankets—and of their promise of a life spent in glorious inactivity—you can begin to grasp what makes this novel so fascinating, despite its daunting appearance. As I’ve mentioned before, The Magic Mountain may be the least inviting of all major twentieth-century novels: it lacks the snob appeal of Ulysses or Proust, its structure is classical and crystalline, and a plot summary doesn’t exactly make it sound like a page-turner. The first necessary step is a leap of the imagination, a willingness to acknowledge the part of yourself that, like the young Hans Castorp, is drawn to the idea of giving up all ambition, all advancement, all action, for the sake of a life spent in the confines of a comfortable chair. Hans Castorp’s reasoning may not be airtight, but it’s hard to deny its power: “On the whole, however, it seemed to him that although honor had its advantages, so, too, did disgrace, and that indeed the advantages of the latter were almost boundless.”

In the end, Hans, a perfectly healthy young man, ends up staying at the sanitarium for seven years. Of course, what he and the reader soon discover is that this retreat into inactivity is secretly a plunge into something else. Despite its unlikely subject matter, The Magic Mountain vibrates on every page with life, intelligence, and insight. Mann likes to remind us, a bit too insistently, that Hans is “ordinary,” but really, as Harold Bloom points out, he’s immensely likable and curious, and you come to identify with him enormously. The story in which he finds himself has often been called a novel of ideas, and it is, but it’s much more: Mann stuffs it with compelling set pieces—Walpurgis Night, Hans’s nearly fatal misadventure in the snowstorm, the séance, the duel between Naptha and Settembrini—that would be high points in any novel, and it isn’t hard to see why the book was a huge bestseller in its time. Like Proust, Mann has useful insights into a dazzling variety of subjects, ranging from medicine to music to the nature of time, even as he depicts a world in which these ideas are on the verge of being destroyed. The characters are rendered with uncanny vividness, and when you’re done, you feel as if you’ve passed half a lifetime in their company, and the memory is charged with nostalgia, longing, and regret. It took me a long time to come around to this book, and it sat unread on my shelf for years. When I finally started it for real, it was with a distinct sense of obligation. And what I found, much to my surprise, was that it was the novel I’d been looking for my entire life.

Written by nevalalee

September 25, 2013 at 9:00 am

The pleasures of underlining

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The author's copy of Proust

There are some readers who would never dream of marking up a book’s pristine pages, but I’m an inveterate underliner. In some ways, I don’t think I’ve really read a book until I’ve had a chance to go through it with a pen. Back in high school and college, I tended to underline books in their entirety, and when I look back at my old copies of Dante or The Anatomy of Melancholy, it can be hard to find an unmarked sentence. This might seem to defeat the practical purpose of highlighting selected passages, but I wasn’t thinking in terms of later reference: it was my way of blazing a trail, of reminding myself how far I’d gone into Dante’s dark forest. Underlining a phrase leaves a distinct, permanent signpost for my future self long after the details of the book have faded. These days, my memory for what I’ve read is spotty at best, but when I open a book and see a passage I’ve marked, I know for sure that I’ve been there.

But I’m a little more selective about what I underline now than I was a decade ago. With nonfiction, I tend to focus on striking facts or insights, especially if I think they might be helpful later, either because I might put them in a story or because they offer useful perspectives or advice. (Many of the Quotes of the Day on this blog were originally found this way.) When I’m doing research for a novel, underlining serves a clear purpose: I’ll usually read through the book once, marking whatever catches my eye, then go back over it again to transfer the major points onto notecards. I’ve found that it saves time to indicate important passages with a thin pen or pencil line in the margin, much as readers of an earlier era scored the page with their thumbnails, which allows me to quickly flip through the book to find what I’ve marked. And a passage that seemed only mildly interesting at the time can later turn out to have enormous resonance. When I’m trying to figure out the plot of a novel, I always go through my old notecards to see if there’s anything I can salvage, and something I wrote down in passing will often have an important role to play years later.

The author's copy of Walden

With fiction, the process is a little harder to pin down. The real test is whether I think an underlined passage will give me pleasure when I come back to it in the future, and I’ll often hesitate for a second before committing myself. It might seem like I’m overthinking it, but I’ve found that looking back through a book I’ve selectively underlined is one of my great joys as a reader. When I revisit my marked copies of Proust or Thoreau, with my eye skipping from one passage to the next, I hit all the high points at once, and whenever I’m reading this way, I never want to do anything else. Just opening The Magic Mountain at random, for instance, I find this:

On the whole, however, it seemed to him that although honor had its advantages, so, too, did disgrace, and that indeed the advantages of the latter were almost boundless.

Even more interesting is when I come across a passage that I don’t remember, and which at first glance doesn’t seem to hold much of interest. If I look more closely, however, I’ll often find that it struck me for reasons that have since lost their urgency, leaving a fossil or snapshot of my emotional life at the time. The result is the closest thing I have to an intellectual autobiography. When I underline a book, it becomes a part of me.

As a result, most of the books I’ve bought in the last ten years are full of highlighted passages, as well as notes on the endpapers, where I’ll often jot ideas or observations if I don’t have a notebook handy. (Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve even been known to lightly underline library books, although only in pencil, and I always go back to erase my work once I’m done.) And it isn’t nearly the same in a Kindle, although it can be interesting to see what other readers have marked. Underlining a physical book brings the hand and the mind into a sort of temporary harmony, and I often feel, rightly or not, that I’m reading more deeply or attentively when I’m holding a pen. Just as I think it’s important to use pen and paper whenever possible while writing, I take pains to keep reading a tactile experience: marking it by hand turns a book from one of thousands of identical objects into something that belongs to me alone, and in the end, it comes to feel like a living being, or a friend.

Written by nevalalee

May 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

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