Abandoned Books and Marginalia

On the evening of April 18, 2010, my girlfriend and I were alarmed to discover perfectly good books — which included four volumes of Saul Bellow and a near mint edition of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange — that had been tossed with some ferocity into numerous plastic bags and thrown into the street. We plundered through these books, selecting those classics or pivotal tomes that we might pass on to friends, acquaintances, or those who may not be able to afford books.

But when we sifted through the books, the young and confused woman who had once owned these books came to life. We learned, by the placement of bookmarks (often lodged just about a third into the book), that many of these books were often partially read. I was particularly saddened to see a volume of collected Kafka abandoned before “The Metamorphosis.”

Within the pages, we found:

  • A takeout menu, dated May 14, 2001, for a now extinct sushi restaurant on West 72nd Street.
  • Two pink ribbons, used as bookmarks, labeled “April 9, 2006 — Sevin’s Bridal Shower”
  • A drinks menu for Under the Volcano, apparently located at 12 East 36th Street. To offer a sample, the drinks menu announces a Papa Daquiri, which is described as “Tart, sweet, intoxicating a classic union of lime, sugar & choice of rum [sic].”
  • The most ironic bookmark came from Project Cicero, a non-profit book drive operation that helps to supplement New York school libraries
  • A subscription card for Vitalis Woman
  • A quite pedestrian recipe for Oven-Fried Chicken with Parmesan Cheese. (This tells us that the woman who owned these books wasn’t much of a cook.)
  • A full-page Rimmel advertisement ripped out from a magazine. (We learned that the woman who owned these books was a model.)
  • A handwritten note, placed in a mass market paperback of Faust, reading: “J — There is something about watching your mouth when you speak that excites me — and it is more than the knowledge of their touch.”
  • An MTA Metro North receipt
  • A flyer for pilates classes

And when we began to flip through the books, additional messages began to emerge.

Saul Bellow, Ravelstein

On the inside front cover, there is a boyfriend’s phone number.

Passages singled out:

  • “Nothing is more bourgeois than the fear of death.”
  • “Stendahl,” “Thomas Hardy,” and “Sidney Hook” underlined. Smiley face in margin.
  • “without music you couldn’t swallow what life offered”
  • “Thucydides” and “Alcibiades” and “Gorgias” underlined
  • “think-tankers” circled, with a note reading “Sienfeld [sic] — 10-14-02”
  • “Severus” and “Caracalla” underlined
  • “And I am active, on the whole. But there are gaps, and these gaps tend to fill up with your dead.”
    “think about his demand for esteem” (heavily underlined)
  • “I was capable of accepting correction”
  • “solitary longings” and “intolerable isolation” (double underlined)
  • “Rousseau” circled
  • “There are significant facts that have to be lived with but you don’t have to let them engross you.”
  • “nature” and “solitude” underlined and checkmarked in margin
  • “I’ve often thought that suicide fantasies and murder fantasies balance each other in the mental economy of civilized people.” (Seeing this so strenuously singled out, after so many references to “esteem” and “solitude” was just heartbreaking to me. I really wanted to give this woman, or whoever she might have been in October 2002, a hug.)
  • “The pictures will stop.”
  • “overgrowth of delusion”
  • “The older you grow the worse the discoveries you make about yourself.” (with an exclamation mark in the margins)
  • “to lose your head”

Michel Faber, The Courage Consort

Note on first page: “The only reality = self” (It is worth noting that there was some Ayn Rand amidst the books we abandoned.)

Passages singled out:

  • “he’d learned to hide his fault-finding under a consultative guise” (with marginal note: “Beautifully said”)
  • “who could be trusted to do nothing to her except keep her warm and safe”
  • “marginally bigger now than a couple of decades ago”
  • “not understanding that a declaration of unfitness was really a plea for encouragement” (with marginal note: “Hate it! But true”)
  • “taken responsibility” (with marginal note: “under ‘his’ breathe [sic]”)
  • “mountain of poise”
  • “to fall into it with him was like joining him in his own world”
  • “challenged a voice from inside her”

Saul Bellow, More Die of Heartbreak

Two specific quotes copied from other pages: “You never had to apply your high intelligence to the lowdown specifics” and (this made me very sad, wondering if the woman had been hurt) “You can love a man without loving what he did to you”

Passages singled out:

  • “philistinism”
  • “Time was escaping through hundreds of gaps. Why wouldn’t he stay put?”
  • “When somebody gives them the business, they can’t interpret how they’ve been shafted.” (marginal note: exclamation mark)
  • “That people dear to us should disappear into eternity is intolerable, and we can’t accept it without cowardice.”
  • “Two psychopaths under one quilt.”
  • “The master is master because he is prepared to face death to maintain the privileges of a master. The slave is unwilling to stake his life.” (marginal note: “Beautiful”)
  • “as you see, so you are”
  • “Bears you a child, and then bears you a grudge.”
  • “One session of lovemaking is converted into a proclamation.”
  • “inventing pranks and gas as so much of the country does”
  • “effrontery”
  • “The sex embrace was death-flavored.”
  • “truth is such a wonderful tonic”
  • “her air of belonging to the past was caused primarily by her remoteness from the present”
  • “They act light but they feel heavy.”
  • “In outer darkness, where their poor hearts are breaking.”
  • “neither would let the other walk into a whirling propeller”
  • “out of proportion to the event”
  • “liberty from low-grade human meanness”
  • Matilda’s “You like to picture yourself as an outsider” monologue bracketed, with a marginal note reading “Love it!”
  • “But you didn’t exactly feel at home with their hoopla, so you were clinging to the Christmas tree.” (smiley face in margin)
  • “Only I’m good and tired of watching high-quality people fuck up in practical life, to the gratification of the vulgar.”
  • “The way grains of sand follow the wind into ululations.”
  • “while they were being woven into eternity”
  • “Friedman answers that no matter how crazy people are, they still remain sane about money.”
  • “referring to her daughter as a ‘piece.'”
  • “It ought to be possible to gratify a woman’s wishes. We’ll do what she wants. I can find out only by going along with her will. Then I may be getting somewhere.”
  • “The secret motive of the absentminded is to be innocent while guilty.”
  • “Absentmindedness is a spurious innocence.”
  • “most of the people we meet are mentally on skid row. One stumblebum after another.”
  • “What it comes down to is that men and women are determined to get out of one another (or tear out) what is simply not to be gotten by any means.”
  • “only somewhat irregular in the way I talk”
  • “I didn’t have the all-too-common tearing-at-the-gut feeling that I must escape as soon as possible from somebody.”
  • Auden quote: “Trouble is attractive when one is not tied.”
  • “I realize now that I had aggravated her lifelong dissatisfaction.”
  • “sack traffic” (vigorously circled)
  • “Perhaps it wasn’t my type of cruelty.”
  • “There are forces around us which nullify reason.”
  • “She doesn’t want you to please her.”
  • “erotomania”
  • “Just as great heights suggest suicide.”
  • Another indication of tracking the original with Blake’s “As a man sees, so he is” circled with great emphasis.
  • “coming into my comfortless sanctuary, I wanted to throw out all the books and papers — the same books on which I depended for clarification” (She certainly heeded this advice.)
  • “After so much mental fussing, nothing was clear anyway.”
  • “I don’t understand why these quality minds have to justify the contempt in which they are held by the general public.”
  • “half-bestial sex demon”
  • “In his slackness there were highly organized tensions.”
  • “his face corpulent”
  • “Well, it’s all those high-placed persons, the guys on the top of the ladder putting in for their share of the erotic recreations of the country.” (marginal exclamation mark)
  • “Dostoevsky” underlined
  • “they say no good deed goes unpunished”
  • “The sacrifice of egoism for the sake of the salvation of individuality.”
  • But it is unjust and evil to refuse this significance to others.”
  • “Poe poem” circled
  • “Whichever way you turn there are costs, costs, and more costs.”
  • “When you’ve fallen from grace, what do you take hold of?”
  • “Obviously there’s an advantage in looking as bad as possible.”
  • “If you have peculiar talents you must be prepared to defend them.”
  • “you never had to apply your high intelligence to the lowdown specifics”
  • “You’ve got loads of warmth which seems to go begging in the wrong places.” (This is likewise copied on the other page.)
  • “the human being, preserving himself humanly, may find a channel which brings him to liberty” (marginal note: “hope”)
  • “For two” (circled), followed by underlined remainder of sentence (“the ideal is to become one”)

There are additional notes on the last page:

“Crazy — one sandwich short of a picnic”
“have sense — just beating her guns”
“bishery — bashery”
“Possibly I could transmit the perfected insight — when I perfected it.”

Elliot Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity

By far, the most interesting marginalia was to be found in a Perlman paperback. (I have omitted the names to protect privacy.)

Because this book is quite long, I won’t list all the underlined passages and I’ll stick with the specific notes. You’ll soon see the story in a minute. It appears that this book was taken on a vacation and was further used to chronicle the dissolution of a relationship.

On page 55, there is this note: “That’s just the way I am — lock me in a cage + I’ll break right thru it!”

On page 64, there is this note: “Love is what I need 2 help me know my name.” (The terrible isolation that this woman is feeling is further suggested by the underlined phrase “preparing for another night of sleeping alone beside you.”)

Marginal note “brilliant” for underlined “the sullen realization of a missed opportunity that’s disguised as a smile, which leaves her face as soon as it arrives.”

Quote underlined and written out: “It’s not my business, only my concern.” (marginal note: “Love it”)

“you content yourself with the uncertainty” underlined (with marginal note “1 of 6 messages”)

“And, he contends, if two people have different views, not simply about the state of their relationship, but about its very nature, then that can affect the entire course of their lives.” (marginal note: “I know it”)

Marginal note on p. 215: “4-12-06. Thanks then 2 [name] + [name]. I was very lucky 2 have been with him so that I could E [name]’s character rt away.” (Throughout the book, the name of this woman’s ex-boyfriend appears along certain passages, as if in recognition.)

Big explanation mark next to “refrain from giving people the benefit of the doubt”

Marginal note on p. 328: “Fear sabotages replies & reality 2 absorb”

Marginal note on p. 331: “Good luck. You have a good selection you should do well — try the 2 sunglasses dude on the beach of Cortez in Cabo.” (smiley face with exclamation points for eyes) (I’m flipping through this book hoping that the woman is about to get lucky after this bad breakup, while she’s recuperating in Cabo.)

Marginal note on p. 339: “Cards — always hit 17 when dealer shows 7 — ace.” (So she’s learning how to play blackjack from the book. This is next to an underlined sentence: “There’s an almost irresistible tendency to think that the smallest thing is the only reason you’re winning.”)

Marginal note on p. 340: “The way everyone treats everyone wherever they can” (also underlined sentence). Arrow pointing to this, with note saying “gross, horrible, not that”

Marginal note on p. 350: “Don’t let’s be friends — let me upset the rhythm of her breathing just once. The way she disrupts make everything I @ U!”

Marginal note on p. 354: “It is experience & u that I go away; @ if I go away. The computer will not come into you, but if I depart I will send him UR 4.”

Marginal note on p. 360: “Momentary thought of how they had photos on computer of my friends. But not me! Hurt my heart.” (She may be commenting on the narrative, but it seems to me that she experienced something very close to the narrative. Hence, these notes.)

Marginal note on p. 369: “Of course u an quit — quit anything you want if you change your mind about doing it….if I sound a little defensive, it’s maybe because I am still a little defensive — on giving up bring the message”

Marginal note on p. 387: “Surely…writing these damn notes clarification of thoughts”

Marginal note on p. 397: “They didn’t come 2 my defense — and I am still defending him.” (This is on the same page where “She didn’t come to my defense, and you’re still defending her.” A name is written. It is clear that this woman is seeing parallels within the narrative.)

Marginal note on p. 518: “People r nasty crazy!”

Marginal note on p. 522: “Separate. Nothing seen thru the same eyes”

Marginal note on p. 569: “Procreate so that other innocent people…”

Marginal note on p. 590: “July 1st 2006. Just girl(s). High Fidelity.”

Marginal note on p. 600: “We seem 2 get our own stories wrong — I don’t realize it.”

Marginal note on p. 601: “His dad was attempting 2 fuck his way out of this years under accommodations 2 a brighter future.” (Back to commenting upon narrative, it would appear. But based on the names, it’s clear she sees parallels between the book and her life.)

Marginal note on p. 610: “[name] thinks = If I leave [name] 4 [name] — then perhaps my eye might not b permanently fixed on [name] either.” (So apparently, she’s reading this book as she’s considering leaving her man for another.)

Marginal note on p. 610: “07-03-06. And so abusive behavior based on forced flow of images of me leaving him.”

Marginal note on p. 612: “Fleeting thought: Had I love [name] — and glad I know we would not be happy together becuz of our power struggles. Just knowing he loves me does not happiness make.”

There were the following entries on the last page.

“Understand [name omitted] sickness now.”
“I used 2 look up 2 u + now I can’t look at u @ all.”
“Move your ass”
“6-11-06. Water up my nose. While tiny time spots w/in tan skin + freckles where the sand was resting”
“Waves crashing. Sens”
“Step class. Facial patience of no yoga.”
“Rt under knee strain/stairs”
“Friday — Flipped at V 3X’s!! Glad 2 B alive. Had my first Pacifco beer after perfect commercial. (smiley face)”


  1. Damn, Ed:
    You and Sarah prove that the worries about digital leading to loss of piracy are overblown. We are all pretty much transparent and are constantly leaving clues about ourselves. Online and off. Especially when we throw out our books. That’s a major cry for attention. or help.
    good post.
    hope you guys are well!
    ~ K

  2. Whew, some of that was pretty intense. Makes me want to find the girl and give her a hug myself. Yet the writer in me would love to see the stories or vignettes that could spring from these notes. Who is the guy? What did he do? How did they meet and where did it go wrong?

    I’m bookmarking this page. Haunting and fascinating at the same time.

  3. Ah, “My girlfriend and I.” Did you figure enough time had passed since you were last accused of being a near-virgin chick repellant to so, so casually note that you have a GIRLfriend without seeming still to be feeling the horrible pangs of the nerve that I pulled out and wrapped around your sweaty legs? “Plundered through”?

  4. After working at used bookstores for five years, I’ve learned not to write any personal inscriptions on books I give as gifts, other than “Merry Christmas!” Hey, Jim from Durham, NC circa 1972: I sure hope you got lucky with Laura “even if for only one night”, but that really tiresome note you wrote in a copy of You Can’t Go Home Again, and the fact that Laura sold said copy, suggests that you didn’t.

  5. There’s something so odd and dazzling about this kind of transparency. Thank you for making notes of HER notes, and sharing them.

  6. What a great post and one filled with such sadness, for both the woman’s life and the potential end of these priceless scrawls made in the moment of a reading haze.

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