When I buy a used book, I take it back if there is underlining.
“They usually get tired of it after the first few pages,” a used bookstore owner once said to me.
Sometimes that’s true; other times not. I recently reread Sophocles’s Antigone, and had the disconcerting experience of having to navigate three generations of underlinings: those of my husband, myself, and the original owner.
The original owner, Dennis S., went a little crazy on p. 173. “Pride,” he wrote, and then underlined a third of the page. My husband took good notes in the margins and scrawled “1st priority state.” I only underlined when I was writing papers, but added a couple of sensible things like “bios” next to Creon’s description of Polyneices and Etocles, and then very vigorously Georgics! next to some lines of the chorus about man’s learning to hunt and work the land (which perhaps made its way into a paper about influences on Virgil’s Georgics, though mostly I wrote about Hesiod).
Page 198 has come adrift from the book, so maybe it’s time to buy a new translation.
There are good underlinings, and bad underlinings.
I recently reread Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor, a post-apocalyptic novel told from the point of view of a middle-aged woman suddenly appointed the guardian of a strange adolescent girl. I was both touched and faintly amused to encounter my teenage self in an underlining of a passage on the bitterness of romantic love. In fact, I am not unlike the middle-aged narrator of Memoirs of a Survivor, who recognizes her past self in the teenage character of Emily.
Like the jaded woman of our dead civilization, she knew love like a fever, to be suffered, to be lived through: “falling in love” was an illness to be endured, a trap which might lead her to betray her own nature, her good sense, and her real purposes. It was not a door to anything but itself: not a key to living. It was a state, a condition, sufficient unto itself, almost independent of its object…”being in love.”
The difference in middle age is that we have been through it so many times that we might as well live in a post-apocalptic society. And this is why we trust Doris Lessing: she doesn’t lie to us about love, our personal lives, or the future.
Underlining is more difficult in e-books. I scrawl notes on paper, because even though I can “highlight” lines (not my kind of thing), I have no way of finding them later.
Last year I read David Lodge’s fascinating novel about H. G. Wells, A Man of Parts, and learned about the feminist writer Violet Hunt, with whom he had an affair. Some of Hunt’s novels are free on the internet, and I am reading The Workaday Woman. The narrator, Carrie, a paid companion to a difficult wealthy relative, is a detached good listener in whom friends confide. She knows many women who work (as journalists, artists, governesses, secretaries), while the men rest on their laurels (or money).
I highlighted this passage on my Nook–and even managed to find it–about the type of man her fiance is, and the paradoxical philosophy she shares with her journalist friend, Jehane, of sex roles.
You see, I already know the kind of man he is, although I love him. He is the kind of man that the busy-bee sort of woman I am always stumbles on. Jehane’s philosophy! Well, well, women must work and men must–play, I suppose. It’s the rule all the world over, and what are women, that we should complain of it?
Yes, I know, this looks awkward out of context–but the book is really good in its way.