I figured I’d share a couple of tips and tricks I use when reading as well as some philosophical subjects around reading. In this first installment, I’ll cover bookmarks and then footnotes.
I have found that boarding pass stubs make great bookmarks. Well, at least back in the day when accounting didn’t require you to send them in after your trip to prove you didn’t just hitchhike to Shanghai and sell your airplane tickets on eBay or something. I had a period of relatively heavy travel where I accumulated a stack about 2 inches tall of stubs. I found initially that on the airplane of course, they were useful when I started a new book during the trip. I gradually got around to using them all the time. The beauty is that I had lots of them so I could (obsessively?) mark lots of interesting places in books. For example, my current page, the end of the current chapter, the middle of the book and the end of the book. If I got even more anxious, I’d add one at the end of additional sections or chapters. This was of course a challenge with Proust where the chapters were about 150-200 pages long so that’s when I used the “every 100 pages” trick or perhaps the “every 50 pages” trick. I suppose it gave me a goal and thus subtle encouragement to keep going. Also, since I had loads of them, I could make pages in several books at the same time if I was doing some parallel reading. The last benefit of this technique was that I was reminded of the trips (particularly the fun ones) whenever I looked at the stubs.
The other subject I wanted to mention was footnotes. I have had mixed opinions of footnotes and figured I’d share them with my readers. As I see it, there are two ways that authors use footnotes and at least two philosophies for readings of books with footnotes. Either the author leaves the actual note at the bottom of the page or s/he collects them into a Notes section at the end of the book. The reader’s challenge is then whether to read each footnote as s/he comes to them or let a certain number go by and catch up at the end of a chapter. The first writer/reader techniques mentioned go rather well together as well as the second writer/reader technique. The hard bit is when you are reading something really dense like, say, Joyce’s Ulysses or the aforementioned Proust where the footnotes are copious and relegated to the end of the book. An annoying amount of time is spent going back and forth from the text to the notes. And yet, one has a hard time picking up on the sense of the text and the context without the notes. I always tried to take the middle road and try to get through a paragraph before flipping back but sometimes this was cumbersome when there were pages and pages of notes. Another strategy would be to read ahead in the notes. But in that case, I’d usually forget what the point was when I was back in the text and have to go back hunting again in the notes. Needless to say, it is singularly unrewarding unless you are passionate about the book in question. The last book I reviewed about Einstein only had bibliographical references so I never actually looked back at the notes. So there it is: does one read in a staccato fashion bouncing back and forth from text to notes or does one just forge through and try to go back through the notes on the second read. I wonder what your strategies are…
Actually, the last time I read Ulysses about two years ago, I started by first reading three literary criticisms and Ellmann’s biography and then the actual text. I found I could get through 5-10 pages before needing to peruse the notes which were more of a reminder than a guide in this case. For Proust, I read Painter’s and Tadie’s biographies as well as about 4 literary criticisms but still had to often go to the notes to get contextual data. So, I suppose your mileage varies. On the other extreme, my American Library copies of Faulkner have no notes at all. Now, it is a bit frustrating to have no notes but I did go and read the two-volume Blotner biography of Faulkner for background on him and had the world’s greatest English teacher in high school where we studied Light in August and As I Lay Dying so I suppose I used those inspirations and my southern upbringing as guidelines where none were given in the book.