When you happen upon a great piece of writing, you want to read it again. A passage that sings with language or moves you in ways that leave you wanting more, or wanting to experience it again. Whenever that used to happen to me as I finished a book, I’d close it and sigh. Then I’d reread the back cover to see what made me buy the book in the first place. Was it true to what it promised? Would I suggest it to friends and family? Will I place it gingerly on my bookshelf to be read again in the future? I focused on the book as a whole and complete piece. This was before I became infected.
It couldn’t be avoided, really. I moved in too close to the reading of books and anthologies. A fever set in, and the next thing I knew, I was marking passages and writing notes in the margins of pages. After so many years of being taught never to deface books, I was doing just that. Even worse, they were my opinions—not as a reader, but as a writer. They call this behavior annotating. It results from the close reading of a text. Writers want to understand why a character comes off as fantastic, or how, exactly, the author made you feel as if you were sitting there, in the room with his characters. It starts with a highlighter, marking paragraphs that you want to remember or read again. It’s not really defacing the book, highlighting. But eventually, highlighting is not enough. Soon you’re penciling in explanations for the highlights. That’s when the notations begin:
Strout frames a stream of consciousness passage with a clear thought – people manage (after losing a loved one). Olive then explores the idea through her own experience, as already told in a different story from the collection. This is a brilliant way to revisit her struggle in a collection without sounding like a repeated telling. She takes us through her husband’s stroke and her struggle, this time through her eyes. She then concludes with, “People manage. She is not so sure. The tide is still out on that one, she thinks.” This framing of the passage works as a clear break from the action, and allows the character to sit alone with her thoughts; a technique typically poo-pooed in writing classes, but is successful here.
When it’s your book, you can notate using whatever terminology you like. Be aware of notations made in pen. These are serious and permanent opinions of the writer and must be treated as such. Passages that could inspire the writer’s future work must be identified with a bookmark, and noted as to the behaviors it caused in the writer, such as literary aspirations. The book must then be banned from its regular place in the collection, never to be returned, and quarantined on a shelf designated for infectious passages.
Please understand that writers, once infected by these anomalies, will become the nitpickers of narration. They will denigrate horrific dialogue with doodles. They will mimic the masters of laurels in their own prolific scribe. This cannot be cured.
I too have an infectious shelf. It is there that I can easily find a scene that stirs my emotions, or language that sets the tone for me to begin dreaming up my next piece. This infection doesn’t allow me to read as I used to. I don’t bother to comprehend if a book is a masterpiece or stinks like rotten cabbage. It’s just not that black and white. A writer has to look closer into each passage. Do the characterizations, language, and techniques inspire you? If so, then keep them near, and the next time you sit down to write, you can easily find your own infectious pieces. A chapter here, a paragraph there, and soon you’ll be feverish all over again.