We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

~Billy Collins, from “Marginalia”

This morning I’m groaning, wishing I could twist back time and tweak small things. I would buy my own copy of Maggie Stiefvater’s Forever instead of waiting a month on the library’s hold list. Not because I minded the month. I had other things to read in the mean time. But I wish I had had my own copy on this first read so that I could mark it with a pencil as I went.

Maggie Stiefvater is an author I want to be friends with, because she’s a writer I want to write like. Not in subject matter — werewolves are not my thing, nor is paranormal romance in general — but because of the way she puts words together.

There were sentences that I had to stop and reread. Not because they were confusing or out of place, but because I wanted to savor them — because she had phrased a simple thing in a way that made it profound.

Instead I lazed in an armchair turning pages, too absorbed in the book to get up and copy the sentences down. The story had me by the hand, pulling urgently, and I couldn’t let go.

If only I could have pressed a thin line under the words with a pencil, I’d be happier now.

Ridiculous, I know, to wish for time travel for such a silly thing. But on Wednesday I read “Marginalia” with my students; I rallied them to read with pen or pencil in hand in order to glean the most from every book and article they devour and make it their own. And here I didn’t listen to my own advice.

Small things make me happy, like knowing my absolute favorite parts of some of my absolute favorite books on my shelves are underlined, like Life of Pi or The King of Attolia or Gilead. I can thumb through them any time and savor those words again.

In fact, with Gilead, I read the first 30 pages of a library copy and then forced myself to stop and buy my own before reading any further. Thirty pages in, I knew I had to mark that book and keep it.

So today when Amazon reminded me that another of my favorite authors has a book releasing in September, I didn’t hesitate to preorder it. Laini Taylor’s books have all wowed me, most of all her National Book Award finalist Lips Touch. So I’ll be reading my own copy of her next book, pencil in hand.

And I might just have to buy Forever and read it a second time.

Have you ever marked a novel? What books or authors have wowed you enough that you might consider rereading them just to underline your favorite passages?

Leave a comment!

[UPDATE 9/1/11: Maggie Stiefvater gives a great description of what you can learn from a single page of a novel here. I can totally relate to the part where she says the same page in her early days would have had nothing but dialogue. One of the things I’m always working on is adding the right blocking to a scene like that.]


2 thoughts on “Back in Time to Grab a Pencil

  1. “Going Postal” by Terry Pratchett is my marked up book–but I trying to do it to all my favorite books, because nothing helps me learn faster than analyzing stories that way.


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