Friday, August 21, 2009

World Sadness

I love used books. I love used bookstores, messy book fairs, online book warehouses. I love new books too, for the smell and the freshness of the page. But I love used books because geography and history intersect in these lovely local objects and besides that, they're not too dear (wallet-wise, I mean; they're perfectly dear in the other way). Also, you can read them. Also, they might have notes.

Sometimes the notes beat me. I had to read an excerpt of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse for a class. The piece is titled "Night Sea-Journey" and the book from which I read it is nothing short of a disaster of use. The binding is creaky and numbers are inked in red felt-tip on the tips of the pages. "Night Sea-Journey" (SPOILER ALERT) begins:
One way or another, no matter which theory of our journey is correct, it's myself I address; to whom I rehearse as to a stranger our history and condition, and will disclose my secret hope though I sink for it.
It continues:
Indeed, if I have yet to join the hosts of the suicides, it is because (fatigue apart) I find it no meaningfuller to drown myself than to go on swimming.
It concludes:
Love! Love! Love!
(do you get it yet?)

These pages are littered with liner notes: "MERCEDES!!!" "Journey," "***" are only a few of the awesome thoughts someone (Mercedes herself? Her bf?) penned whilst bedazzled by Barth (on the title page: "Whole bk--ALLEGORY???"). Maybe, you courageous thing. Maybe.

Anyhow, when I first read it with my Absurdist Literature and Its Vision hat on, I chuckled to myself knowingly at the end. "College kids," I thought. "Always making notes about sperm in the margins of books they don't want to read." But I felt a little sheepish during the discussion that week when it became abundantly clear that everyone else in the room had caught on to Barth's joke.

Sometimes--often--the previous owner's notes are, in fact, nothing more than full disclosures that
  1. Someone had to read this for class;
  2. Someone was bored in class;
  3. Someone assumed there would be a paper due on this book for class.
Such is the case with the annotation to this passage from East of Eden, this passage in which Steinbeck indicates that he is for real:
It's my duty to take this thing of yours and kick it in the face, then raise it up and spread slime thick enough to blot out its dangerous light. . . . I should hold it up to you muck-covered and show you its dirt and danger. I should warn you to look closer until you can see how ugly it really is. I should ask you to think of inconstancy and give you examples. I should give you Othello's handkerchief. Oh, I know I should. And I should straighten out your tangled thoughts, show you that the impulse is gray as lead and rotten as a dead cow in wet weather. If I did my duty well, I could give you back your bad old life and feel good about it, and welcome you back to the musty membership in the lodge.

The note in the liner, the thought that Briana Culmo decided she absolutely needed to record, the interpretation that she thought necessary to note:

world sadness

About three pages later:
An ache was on the top of his stomach, an apprehension that was like a sick thought. It was a Weltschmerz (shut up, Naomi; J/K! I LOVE YOUR GERMAN)--which we used to call "Welshrats" (it's only a little racist)--the world sadness that rises into your soul like a gas and spreads despair so that you probe for the offending event and can find none.
And the note:
world sadness

That's a win, Bri. In fact, 2-0.
Used books, you're 2-0 too.

1 comment:

kristin said...

do you think a b can make me an adbsurdist literature and its vision hat?