>I’m reading a 2001 essay by Rebecca McClanahan, a professor with whom I have been lucky to study at grad school (however brief—I was a fiction emphasis, and she’s a well-known non-fiction writer). It’s called “Book Marks,” and it has to do with her obsession with the marginalia of used books, particularly with the written clues left by this woman who had checked out a book of poetry at the New York Public Library just before she did: her annotations, circles and underlines, and various bits of self left between the pages (a smear of red lipstick here, a strand of graying hair there).
The essay is from a well-worn copy of The Best American Essays, 4th ed., a book I bought used from Amazon at the start of my first year of grad school. I was unemployed, so I took out student loans and chose the cheapest of the cheap books—the front cover of my copy is permanently flipped back and the notes in the margins (written in ink) practically outnumber the printed words.
In her essay, McClanahan forms a composite image of the woman who possessed the book before her based on the phrases her pencil found, like “serviceable heart” and “Grey-haired, I have not grown wiser.” She recognizes herself in what this mystery woman has found significant, and worries for her—for where these poems will take (have taken) this woman, and how dark it is there.
My own book is filled with the notes of some mystery woman—if I can stomach calling her a “woman”—who writes in the soulless and unhurried bubbles of a perennial eighth-grader. I remember learning to write this way from my more popular peers in junior high: the a, c, u, and g are all just an “o” accessorized with a curl or stem; I can practically hear her whisper the count of two humps or three as she conducts her neat m’s and n’s; her y is a gaping and vulgar thing, whose tail comes up to meet its mouth.
This is the handwriting of an idiot. Of someone whose brain drones and hums at a steady, predictable pace, unsullied by ideas or memories or anxieties. Were it not a college text, I would go easier on the girl/woman. But come on. You can vote for President of the United States at her age.
The pages are also filled with the encircled words she does not understand, with an impressively straight line ending in an arrow that points to the definition as it is explained to her—either by Mirriam-Webster or a brighter roommate. “Gauzy” (“thin, light”); “Audible” (“loud enough to be heard”); “Harlequin” (“traditional comic ch.”). She sometimes gets these definitions wrong, like “Auburn,” whose arrow explains “White;” sometimes, her definitions are puzzling, like when she writes “In ancient times, an unbreakable stone,” next to “Adamant.” Why did she choose the etymological definition of the word? Was this an extremely helpless mind or an unfathomable genius?
More disturbing still are her summations of the text. This is the essay’s first line: “I am worried about the woman. I am afraid she might hurt herself, perhaps has already hurt herself—there’s no way to know which of the return dates stamped on the book of poetry was hers.”
Next to it, the bubble writing reads “Cares for others.”
Another paragraph down: “There’s no way to know for certain that the phantom library patron is a woman, but all signs point in that direction.”
The student writes “Then why worry if you don’t even know its [sic] a woman.” The absence of a question mark suggests a tone. You know it. It’s that vacant, slurring, dismissive voice that undergrads have adopted en masse—the one that puts question marks? Where they shouldn’t be? The one that makes the now-blameless 1980s Valley Girl “oh my gawd!” into a mentally challenged “uh-eye-gahw.”
At the bottom of the first page, our Voltaire writes “The author can relate to the mystery woman,” and on the next, after a list of the author’s history with reading Sylvia Plath, Keats, and Shelley, the girl has written, as if struggling to make meaning: “Very into poems.”
“Stymied” —–> “Frustrated.” Which is what I’m becoming as I move through the text, now unable to concentrate on McClanahan’s foray into self-discovery through the literate habits of a stranger, thanks to the inane chatter of this half-wit with the bubbly penmanship. As the essayist describes her lonely college days, in which her dearest friends were the people who’d used her textbooks before her, exploring the clues left by them—a pizza sauce stain on a map of South America, a misspelled “orgassm” between the sentences of John Donne’s “The Canonization”—I can’t help but feel fortunate that I had a social life (too much of one, if we’re honest about it) when I was a freshman. I also can’t help but feel cheated: I wasn’t assigned any John Donne. I also was never assigned any Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I’ve read (and performed) plenty of Chekhov, but I feel bereft. I’d gladly trade my To Kill a Mockingbird experience for The Brothers Karamazov, and now that I’m older and my brain is damaged from trauma and checkbooks and housework, I worry I don’t have the attention span for it.
In other words, I’m afraid this is as good as I’ll get.
I wonder if this girl felt the same way, for even a second, before scribbling “thinks beyond & gives questions to story” as if she is trying to assemble clues, not about a previous reader, as does the essayist, but about the author herself; as if struggling to understand what makes a writer care. About something like words.
By the end of the piece, I have absorbed nothing of McClanahan’s essay but an uncharitable feeling towards today’s youth. Mind you, I’m “today’s youth” to many. I’m sure they overhear my conversations with my friends on the phone, my vulgar “fucks” and “douchebags,” the quacking “mah!” that I use to express dissatisfaction, and think language is dead in America. By the end of the piece, I can relate to the Denise Levertov poem that inspired this essay: though grey-haired (here and there, in certain light), I am no wiser.
I am angry with the world, for what has been lost, for where it is going; but more, I am afraid. Around me, businesses spend hundreds on signs that misuse an apostrophe; “there” and “their” and “your” and you’re” are so often blithely interchanged, that it threatens to become the norm. Even my educated peers tell me to leave it alone, that it has always been this way—the masses will change the language and we have to let it go. When Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales, scholars balked at the use of the popular form of English that they found trashy and revolting. They called it “Middle English,” which was a pretty horrible insult. Mind you, this is the English that preceded the English of Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Virginia Woolf. If any of these fine people were to stand behind me in line at Target, they’d bury their face in their hands and sigh, “What’s the world come to?” But yeah, Canterbury Tales was to the 14th Century what NWA was to 1988.
Towards the end of the essay, McClanahan begins to distress about the mental/emotional well-being of the reader before her, who seems to have derived support for her suicidal state in lines like “gradual stillness” and “fumes/swirled in our heads and around us.”
Next to it, the girl has written “She does as the woman (maybe she is the woman).”
At the end, McClanahan realizes that the notes in the margins have become their own poem of despair, whose author she longs to find and give hope to—to say, “Wait up, I want to tell you something.” Hers is a story of grace, and mine has none. Her story is that of two older women, educated and weaned on what we can guess is the same canon of poets and writers, one of whom has hope to give the other. My other and I were assigned this book for what appears to be different purposes; I can’t imagine what hers was—a mandatory reading comprehension course? A B.A. in Communications? I feel angry at the gap between us, between our educations. I am afraid of the ever-widening gap between even my uneducated grandparents and the drooling dummies at the table next to me in the café near the college. I worry that “intellectualism” is increasingly denigrated by folksy moose-shooting politicians, orange-peopled reality TV shows, and gossip magazines, and that it has already begun to inform voters’ decisions to support (or at least turn a blind eye to) Congress cutting funding to schools.
I am angry that I know the meaning of “dirigible,” and that this girl has been turned loose on the world thinking it is merely something that “can be directed or steered.” I know it for a silver, bullet-shaped ship that is somehow lighter than air but can carry hundreds of people. It was once the vision of the future: a sky filled with these wonderful humming things whose ingenuity, while one time awe-inspiring, would now be commonplace. Where the brilliant minds that conceived it were respected, trusted, and put in charge of building a beautiful world. Never mind the Hindenburg; I would love to live in a world like that.