Pittsburgh, PA
June 8, 2023
    News           Sports           Lifestyle           Classifieds           About Us
The Dining Guide
Travel Getaways
Consumer Rates
Headlines by E-mail
Home >  Lifestyle >  Columnists Printer-friendly versionE-mail this story
PG Columnists

Readers rise up to write opinions on marginalia

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

High-minded as it would like to appear, this column, with its grotesquely limited intellectual capacity, cannot target exclusively the most urgent arguments. Issues that impact world peace, national politics, social justice and the Pirates' sustained inability to hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle must sometimes be put aside for the truly arcane.

Few are the minor rhetorical dustups I can't exploit for 700 words, as it is useful to occasionally demonstrate. Thus, I refer you to a respectful little debate currently bubbling in subterranean recesses of the cultural discipline we now call literature.

Meaning books.

Literature used to mean something else entirely, such as writing that endeavored to be preserved and remembered. Now, if you can throw together "Chicken Soup for the Idiot's Soul," you're stone literary.

In general terms, here's the hot issue: Should people who insist upon writing in the margins or underlining the text in books be lauded as deep thinkers who sustain the book's dialogue for generations, or merely shot through the head at close range?

As usual, I say it depends.

It all started in the wandering mind of Steve Leveen, Levenger co-founder and president who writes a column for the company Web site. Levenger makes "tools for serious readers" and has a knack for bringing attention to itself. Leveen merely pointed out that some of his literary friends indeed scribble and underline in books, while others don't.


But his e-mail responses actually revealed strong opinions on either side, and even evidence that one side harbors verbiage of mass destruction.

Any marking of the text is an affront to the next generation of readers, some say. You wouldn't visit an art museum and make markings on the paintings, say others. What's more, at least one respondent said, "underlining is a fool's way of absorbing knowledge."


As someone who foolishly underlined the entire 700-page text of "History of Journalism" in the dark winter of 1974, I would counter that a fool's absorption is often the sole option and wholly legitimate.

Leveen calls the two sides "Footprint" and "Preservationists" and revels in the notion that these are two teams who don't like each other. But "Footprint Leavers" is a clumsy slice of nomenclature, unless you went to first grade with Emery Oaks, as I did. First-graders being short people by definition, and Emery being shorter than standard, he was noted for those occasions on which he fulfilled the necktie requirement by borrowing one from his father. Often then, when he unavoidably stepped on his tie, he would trip, drop his books and, literally if not literarily, leave an actual footprint on the page.

I have sometimes found myself writing or underlining in books, mostly recently in David McCullough's biography of John Adams, in which George Washington writes to Adams on America's prospects in the coming Revolutionary War.

"We cannot guarantee success," Washington wrote, "but we can deserve it."

I underlined that. Which I think is why I remember it, although the chances I've misquoted it run to 70 percent. Similarly, one summer when I resolved to read nothing but classics I was never forced to read, I wrote liberally in the margins of "Moby Dick." Were I to find my copy, I'd be afraid these notations would be generally useless exclamations.

"Melville, you are, like, so the man!"

This, according to Leveen, puts me in the company of such luminaries as Winston Churchill, who reportedly "scribbled" in his school books. Leveen didn't supply the nature of such scribbling, leaving open the possibility that Churchill filled those pages, as the library cop Bookman said in the famous Seinfeld episode, "with pee-pees and wee-wees."

Library books, of course, are outside the argument -- at least, one would hope. In a laughably unscientific test involving 10 randomly selected books from the shelves of a local library yesterday, I'm happy to report virtually no footprint leaving, not even in "Soup, a Way of Life," "A History of Slovakia" or "Chilton's Repair and Tuneup Guide for the 1985 Chevy Nova."

The only thing resembling even a toe print came in the later stages of "Teahouse of the August Moon," and that was in the 50-year-old play, not the book upon which the play was based. In the copy I saw, Act Two, Scene 4 has been changed. It read originally:

Fisby: How old is this brandy, Sakini?

(Sakini turns to Hokaida, who holds up seven fingers)

Fisby: Seven years old?

Sakini: Oh, no, boss. Him make last week.

In the altered version, the joke is taken out, and Sakini's line is changed to "It make last week."

Stupid footprint leavers.

So there you have it, another 700 words, another $10,000. When Leveen wrote about this issue, he got more than 2,000 e-mails. You won't do that to me, will you?

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.

Back to top Back to top E-mail this story E-mail this story
Search | Contact Us |  Site Map | Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise | Help |  Corrections