Tuesday, February 22, 2011


February 22, 2011:

Yesterday the NYTimes carried a piece about the decline of marginalia in the age of the ebook, and I read it with more than usual interest because I am an inveterate writer of notes in the margins of my own books, unless the books have value, in which case I take notes in a notebook to keep from lowering that value. I do it, however, with mixed feelings. Because books last and human beings don't, I think of owning books as a kind of stewardship; they're doing to survive me, I keep them in pretty good condition, so what am I doing ruining them for the next owner, and possibly reader, by scribbling my thoughts, however brilliant, in the margins? But then I think, well I own the damned things, so why shouldn't I scribble in the margins? If I were to become a famous writer, besides, those notes might actually add to the value. Then I look at the notes I've written in books and see that virtually none of them are brilliant and most are trivial; so I go back and forth on the subject, but usually wind up lazy, and writing in the margins.

All this comes home to me because I'm currently rereading one of Henry James's best novels, The Ambassadors, I think for the third time, and there are my marginalia from the first time I read it, in college, more than fifty years ago, and it's like saying hello to somebody I recognize but don't entirely remember, and passing him in the street, smiling at him, all the while thinking to myself, "Who was that man?" Mostly, in this case, my marginalia are embarrassingly dumb, and I'm just as glad to have passed this fellow by.

But last night, reading in bed, one sentence I had written really struck me. "He shan't marry her now," it says, and as it happens he, being Lambert Strether, our hero, didn't marry her, didn't marry anybody, and came out of this novel with his honor intact, himself enlightened, but losing everything he thought he wanted, including the safety net of his job. But it wasn't my predictive power that struck me. It was the word "shan't." It was the first time I had seen this word in many years. And what struck me was that when I wrote it, in the late 1950s, it was much more common. Then I started thinking about how much else had changed since the 1950s, which was half a century closer to the world Henry James evokes so well in this novel, and how foreign the life that Lambert Strether and the other characters in the book took for granted must seem to readers today. Granted, the book is set in Paris, and that's foreign enough all by itself; but it's much more than that. The moral standards, the ways in which men and women related to each other, the levels of social sophistication, of refinement, of manners, have utterly changed. I wrote a piece in grad school, by which time I had become much more knowing, about the way James used manners in his novels, and cited as an example the occasion in Portrait of a Lady when our heroine, whose name I forget at the moment, walked into a room where her husband and the woman who had been his lover were together talking and he was sitting down while she was standing; and she knew from that fact alone all that was necessary: that they had been, possibly still were, intimate; because no man would allow a woman to stand while he sat unless they knew each other very very well.

But of course old novels are bound to be saturated with social milieus that have been lost. It's not as if this is a revelation. But when you land in your 70s you sometimes feel as if you've outlived your time, that you're stuck with old habits, old styles. I learned my manners many years ago and still have trouble not picking up the bill when I'm eating out with a female friend; I still hold doors open for people, but women especially, and my impulse is to stand up when a woman I don't know enters a room. In James's time manners were so well developed that you could read a great deal into the details; a gesture, a way of shaking someone's hand, a silence could tell you everything. The density of social life in his time is one of the great fascinations of his fiction, one of its rewards, and social life in this country in this our own time seems vastly diminished in comparison. So much has been lost. So much has been vulgarized. And no one can use the word "shan't" any more without seeming affected.

Maybe that loss has something to do with the current popularity of Jane Austen's work. We feel the loss. I think it is partly a loss of moral standards. Manners are based on morals: on mutual respect; on compassion and kindness; on thoughtfulness. Austen is a satirist and never tires of demonstrating among her characters the failure of compassion, kindness, thoughtfulness, and respect. Certainly we feel the loss in our politics, which are vicious and anything but kind; and compassion seems to have disappeared entirely.

As for marginalia, I suspect that soon enough programmers will figure out how to produce ebooks that allow marginalia to appear. Can we then predict the death of the physical book? I don't think so. I've written before about the pleasures of owning books and holding them in your hands, and whatever else is in decline, pleasure doesn't seem to be. I'll no doubt go on writing in the margins of my books and damn the consequences. My kids will wind up with most of them, and maybe they'll get a kick out of the old man's responses. I suppose it's a kind of bad manners to write in books, but nobody's perfect. Even Henry James, although, in The Ambassadors, he wrote a perfect book.