One weird thing about reading books on an e-reader is that you can see what other people have chosen to underline when they were reading the same book on other e-readers. You can even see how many people have underlined a particular sentence.
I have found that I can easily guess which sentences will be underlined by following this one simple rule:
The underlined sentences will be the most general, trite, "philosophical" statements.
Here is an active learning exercise for my readers. Which sentence(s) below would you predict will/should be underlined?
The old man stared at the lobster on his plate, wondering what the lobster was thinking when he (she?) clambered into the slatted wooden trap. Did all lobsters eventually end up in a trap? Did any lobster ever die a natural death? And he wondered: Was death somehow more natural than life? Even as we lose our grip on the tissue of life, like the sunset, the inevitable, beautiful, tragic sunset loses its grip on the horizon, we are all lobsters. How strange that the sunset today was the color of the dead lobster on his plate.
Did you guess the "Even as we lose our grip.." sentence ± the question before it? A+++++ for you! Any other sentence: underline FAIL.
I have never been a very diligent or systematic underliner, or even a highlighter, and I seem to have missed out on some important lesson about What To Highlight.
When I was in college, I took a literature course that surveyed the Great Works, from the dawn of time to the recent past. I had read many of these Great Works before I got to college, but I had read them in isolation. I took the class because I wanted to learn about these books from Great Scholars. What I mostly learned was that there was symbolism lurking in the prose, unbeknownst to me when I read these works on my own.
I also noticed that my classmates arrived in class each day with heavily highlighted and annotated books, and they further annotated the books as the professor pointed out key passages. I tried to do this, but I was never very good at it. I tended to underline sentences that I liked for aesthetic reasons, missing profound statements about life and death and war and peace and lobsters.
Armed with a new realization about the utility of highlighting, a friend and I decided to annotate the paperback collection of used and abandoned Great Books that resided in a study room in our college residence. Hoping that some future undergraduate who took this same course would read these particular books, we decided to make up strange and unlikely annotations, in the further hope that these hypothetical future readers would be entertained, or, I admit, confused.
For example, we would underline a sentence like this one from War and Peace -- "Prince Vassily always spoke languidly, like an actor repeating his part in an old play." -- and write something in the margin like "IMPORTANT seagull imagery!"
I was reminded of this juvenile impulse recently as I was reading yet another e-book that had yet another trite phrase underlined. I felt the urge to do some subversive underlining of text that apparently had no particular significance, just on the off chance that it would make someone wonder what they were missing.
So far I have suppressed that urge, and I may yet become a sincere underliner, as I sometimes find marking text useful for later reference if I am going to use a snippet in a blog post.
For example, I was recently struck by two things on one page of the novel The Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey (Note: This is most definitely not a recommendation that anyone read this book).
One, not (yet) underlined bit of text -- but a possible candidate for underlining were I to keep track of the Stupidest Sentences In This Book -- is: "Manu-script. Funny the feminists hadn't had their way with that one yet."
Another, underlined by someone (not me): "How one knew and recognized handwriting, as one knew and recognized a voice in the distance, or on the other end of the phone. These details of person-hood we learned and memorized, as if access to that information meant we knew and understood one another. We felt a sense of ownership of such things."
Too bad the author doesn't have a sense of ownership of complete sentences. Or feminism.
And this: "But the death of a parent is a loss of self. A loss of history. Who else really remembers your childhood but your parents?"
In the book, My Hollywood by Mona Simpson, were I to underline text, I would go for this bit, when the woman narrator muses about her struggles to have a career as a composer/musician and a wife/mother: "You can be both! my mother had said. But my mother was mentally ill."
For some reason that I can't begin to understand, 23 people have underlined this text in Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: "And that's what immortality means to me, Joshie. It means selfishness. My generation's belief that each one of us matters more than you or anyone else would think." Am I missing something?
But, just as my cynicism was deepening about all these anonymous highlighting people, I found some text that has been highlighted by 23 people (the same ones??), perhaps just because it is beautiful text: "The love I felt for her on that train ride had a capital and provinces, parishes and a Vatican, an orange planet and many sullen moons -- it was systemic and it was complete."
6 months ago