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Keeping Notes

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore.In the post below Ammon reflects on note-taking.

Every so often I find myself engaged in some activity that works out much better than I had expected it to. When this happens I inevitably find myself thinking ‘why don’t I remember to do this all the time?’, as though I could irrevocably change my life for the better, if only I took careful notes of what works and what doesn’t, and then scrupulously followed those notes in all my future endeavors.

But just as inevitably I cast aside these intentions, and far too often find myself engaged in some activity that doesn’t work quite so well as I’d hoped. Of late, I’ve been wondering why I don’t keep notes when I read.

I always keep notes when I read a dictionary; if I don’t I find myself constantly plagued by the feeling that there is a word I can’t remember, somewhere back in the first three letters of the alphabet, and I’ll waste some large portion of a morning going back and fruitlessly searching for it. So when I sat down to read the OED last year I did so with a blank book in which I planned on keeping notes.

Because the OED was a larger dictionary than any other I had read I decided to get a larger book for a my notes. I found a used book dealer in Massachusetts who had a blank nineteenth century daybook; 500 enormous pages of clean old paper that had been waiting patiently for well over a hundred years for someone to come along and write on them. In it I wrote all the words that I came across that I liked, or the things about which I had questions, or any thoughts that I had about the dictionary as I read it.

The book is filled halfway with my scrawls, inkblots, and coffee stains. Sometimes I’ll look through it if I’m looking for some word that slipped out of mind, and sometimes I’ll just pick it up to browse through. It is an extremely condensed and personal version of the OED. While it lacks the majesty and erudition of that work it does do a wonderful job of reminding me why I enjoyed reading it in the first place.

Why don’t I keep notebooks for the other books I read? I’ve tried many different methods of memorializing my books – dog-earing pages that I want to come back to, interleaving sheets of paper with jotted comments, penciling or penning in marginalia. In all cases I have similar results: the beginning of the book is marked with this readerly spoor, but as I progress through the pages the intentions apparently give way to the simple pleasure of reading in the moment, without plans for the future, and the notes and creased pages die off.

Part of me thinks that keeping notes for reading non-reference works is a waste of time. I tell myself that I’ll always remember certain parts of certain books – some writing is so terribly well done that it sears itself into my memory. At least, that’s what I thought, and to prove it to myself this morning I picked up what has long been one of most treasured and well-remembered books, Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. It’s a tiny little novel, with an utterly improbable amount of joy and sadness packed into just under a hundred pages. I’ve read it a number of times, and one of the things about it that I remember most clearly is that every single chapter begins with the exact same line: “For thirty-five years now I’ve compacted wastepaper in a hydraulic press…”

Yet when I looked at it this morning I discovered that I was wrong. Many of the chapters begin with some variation of this line, but no two are exactly the same, and some chapters are missing it completely. At first I found this extremely disconcerting – if only I had kept notes when I read this book I never would have spent all these years cherishing a false memory. And then I realized the absurdity of keeping notes for reading a 98 page novella.

My memories of this book are inimitably mine and every bit as real and meaningful as the book itself. The fact that they are graced with the creativity of imprecise recollection gives this book even more of a hold on me. The enjoyment I get from rereading my notes on the OED notwithstanding, I’ll continue to read my books without an eye to the future.

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Recent Comments

  1. Laoma

    Ooh, I am so jealous. I would love to read the whole OED! I once spent two weeks immersed in the first version while writing a paper on Hamlet in Cairo. Sigh. My memories of that time are like remembering the ultimate vacation love affair. Sometimes I wonder how I sustained such continous ecstasy. Youth.

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