Writing in books

I thought for a long time about how to incorporate Valentine’s Day into a post. Last year I wrote about an anti-Valentine’s Day backlash in Colombia, and that old post has been peered at by many fresh pairs of eyes in the last week or so. If you want to learn Valentine’s Day or love vocabulary, I’m certain that lists abound on the internet. The world doesn’t need another post on any of that, though. I suppose, then, that I wanted to say something explicit and non-evasive for once about love. The fact is that there is love brimming over in every one of my posts here; each one is an encrypted love letter, some of those valentines more thinly veiled than others. You probably just don’t catch the allusions, quotes, or entreaties. Raised very religiously, I always find myself wanting to confess. I guess I wanted to come clean with my motives. Maybe all writers, though, have their secret reasons for writing. Perhaps a great deal of us write to many what we wish we had the courage to say to one. Like Gabriel García Márquezsoy escritora por timidez.

Speaking of García Márquez, I started to reread El amor en los tiempos del cólera (Love in the Time of Cholera) yesterday. Does there exist a book that is more romantic than this one? No? I rest my case. Not that I’ve read every book out there ni mucho menos, but I still feel secure in making that bold statement. For me, its romanticism can’t be topped. To be sure, I mean all the meanings of romantic, both good and bad. However, I don’t mean romantic as in mushy, kiss-kiss, chocolate and flowers and stuffed animals and all that other cursilería. For better or for worse, this book is romance par excellence. If you’re the romantic type like I am, it may be somewhat of a dangerous read. Of course, I discovered that when it was already far too late. In any case, I already had all of those silly notions safely dwelling in me, so it’s not like the book put them there. It certainly didn’t disabuse me of any of them, though. Ojo, let no one read it as a how-to on love or happiness unless you’re content to wait several decades.

I’ve written once before about rereading Cien años de soledad. A difference with this reread, however, is that I’m reading the same copy of El amor en los tiempos del cólera that I read the first time. (I chose to leave my beautiful copy of Cien años de soledad in Colombia.) The book’s certainly seen its better days. It’s battered and stained, the spine has fallen off, and you can pluck certain pages right out, but it has love and character and a story. I bought it at a used bookstore in downtown Medellín the day before I decided to move back to the U.S. In fact, I bought two books that day, and it was directly because of one very specific word on the first page of the other book that my ex and I decided to call it quits. Of course, I left that book behind as well. We’d gone to that bookstore specifically to look for El amor en los tiempos del cólera, and I just chanced upon the other book while browsing solo in the very cramped and low-ceilinged upstairs section of the bookstore. Who knows, maybe I’d still be living in Colombia if I hadn’t decided to read GGM’s second most popular book or hadn’t wandered up that creaky staircase to curiosear. La curiosidad mató al gato; just like in English, curious cats in Latin America meet a very lamentable fate. What if, what if, what if . . .


Earlier today I reread a fabulous, prize-winning essay out there on rayar libros–writing in books. Do our marginal scribblings give us away? Are the passages that we passionately underline emblems of our souls? What can you learn about a person by reading a book they’ve read? Can you communicate with someone through a book? What about a blog? Why do we spill our hearts in the most ineffectual places? Vaya usted a saber . . . 

I’ve always loved “Marginalia” by Billy Collins, a poem exalting the art of peripheral commentary. Here’s the last part:

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.

“How vastly my loneliness was deepened, / how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed . . .” Yes. If this isn’t an effective apologia for marginalia, I don’t know what would be.

What does one find in my books? If they’re in Spanish, hundreds of definitions. Are these the most representative messengers of who I am? Maybe so. Besides vocabulary words, what did I underline in El amor en los tiempos del cólera? ¿Qué me movió muchas fibras? Where did I feel myself most compenetrada, most aludida?

–Aprovecha ahora que eres joven para sufrir todo lo que puedas–le decía–, que estas cosas no duran toda la vida.*

Hoy, al verlo, me di cuenta que lo nuestro no es más que una ilusión.

–Es feo y triste–le dijo a Fermina Daza–pero es todo amor.*

. . . se consagraba a la pérdida del tiempo.

. . . nunca hubiera admitido la realidad de que Florentino Ariza, para bien o para mal, era lo único que le había ocurrido en la vida.

–Rico no–dijo–: soy un pobre con plata, que no es lo mismo.*

Florentino Ariza escribía cualquier cosa con tanta pasión, que hasta los documentos oficiales parecían de amor. Los manifiestos de embarque le salían rimados por mucho que se esforzara en evitarlo . . .*

Fermina Daza había rechazado a Florentino Ariza en un destello de madurez que pagó de inmediato con una crisis de lástima, pero nunca dudó de que su decisión había sido certera. 

. . . la seguridad, el orden, la felicidad, cifras inmediatas que una vez sumadas podrían tal vez parecerse al amor: casi el amor. Pero no lo eran . . .

Esta cuca es mía.

Quería ser otra vez ella misma, recuperar todo cuanto había tenido que ceder en medio siglo de una servidumbre que no la había hecho feliz, sin duda, pero que una vez muerto el esposo no le dejaba a ella ni los vestigios de su identidad . . . quién estaba más muerto: el que había muerto o la que se había quedado.

. . . aquel amor irreal.

¿Por qué te empeñas en hablar de lo que no existe?

I put stars next to my favorite lines. People, don’t you see that you need to drop everything and read this book as soon as humanly possible?

Previous owners of the book had written a few things as well. Doña Duque G. is written in neat, feminine cursive in the margin of page 73, and pages 173, 273, and 373 say ² G. at the top. While this initially seemed bewildering, I now see that my copy of the book has 473 pages. I guess that from these mile markers, Doña Duque could say to herself, Only four hundred more pages to go . . . only three hundred more pages . . . only two hundred more pages, ¡ya casi! Was this a punishment meted out to her by someone? Doña Duque G., the state will pardon your crime if you read this schmaltzy mamotreto. Or did she shed a tear every time she reached the 73 mark as she was forced to realize that her time with the amazing book was rapidly running out and, similarly, she would one day cease as well?

On the title page, you can see that a name was once written in pencil before being erased. Oh, what wretched instruments erasers are! The same goes for White-out. They should be banned, rounded up, and destroyed. The last name looks like Posaada. No idea about the rest of it. One of the pages has also been ripped out. Naturally, this literary vandalism also speaks volumes. On the back of the book is an old yellow sticker that $15000←SET. As you can see, I clearly need to go back to Medellín to claim the rest of the set that was never given to me. I also want to buy more books and find more stories tucked inside stories.

So many people travel from country to country and spend so much money on counseling to find themselves, but maybe they would discover just as much, if not more, were they to pore through the books they’ve read and loved and see what stirred them in lives past. Perhaps life is too short to reread books when there are so many wonderful books out there, but it’s also far too long not to remember. And if books can be revisited and relived, then maybe certain times of life can also be returned to and even edited and reissued. If nothing else, marginalia lets us speak out of our loneliness and possibly right into that of a stranger who may even have something to shyly say back to us. Will anyone ever find our navel-gazing blog posts or heated Facebook comment discussions in 3013? Most likely not. Instead, immortalize yourself and emblazon your being on the future with a book and a pen. Someone will tenderly scrutinize it, someone will wonder, surely someone will read your barbaric yawp and care.


10 responses to “Writing in books

  1. Definitely one of your best entries!


  2. Loved the D2G sluething… I would like to think these mile markers were goals–the first one always being less than one hundred pages–is enough to motivate you to get into the book. The remaining ones –into nice even sittings. A book lover indeed.


    • I love how people approach certain books from completely different angles and perspectives. And I like it when they put their thoughts or squiggles on paper, no matter how strange they might be.


  3. Elegante, inteligente, interesante como siempre. ¡Muchísimas gracias!


  4. Hi Katie,

    This was a very interesting blog! I love reading, but I have to admit that I don’t often write in my books. I don’t like to think of people reading my personal thoughts and reactions to the story. Funny, I know! But also, I’m reading almost everything on the Kindle now, so there isn’t a margin to write in. I sure enjoy your posts! Keep them coming!



  5. I love reading, but I never write in my books…except academic ones (for notes) I guess this comes from my mother being very very strict about not defacing books. In a way, I guess she’s right…when you’re a child, writing in a book would mean ugly scribbles most of the time!


  6. Pingback: Celebrating Gabo | Vocabat

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