Highlighting the Classics | Newberry

Highlighting the Classics

You are, of course, at liberty to mark up your books any way you choose. They are YOUR books. If a holster with sixteen different colors of highlighter is part of your usual study equipment, this is none of my business.

Until you donate your books to the Book Fair. THEN you place yourself in a category with the people who used to donate buttonfly jeans with the button holes all ripped out to the charity rummage sale in my home town. People mutter about you, broasted butterfly. They say, “Did he think this would sell or does he live in a neighborhood with no garbage pick-up?”

Some of you highlight AND underline, adding color where we don’t expect it. Some of you make nifty little code markings in the margins of passages you have underlined. We had a load of books from someone who read them with attention and with creativity. Each underlining was accompanied by a little triangle (an arrow?) or a small set of concentric circles, or brackets, or…. These were all New Age spellbooks, so perhaps this was some sort of ritual underlining meant to discourage outsiders. I know it would discourage buyers.

And some of you are so impressed by a book that you highlight EVERY SINGLE WORD OF THE TEXT. Do you understand that if you highlight everything, you have in fact, highlighted nothing? Every word is now on an equal basis again. Sometimes I wonder why I don’t just give in, label the books Art, and charge a thousand bucks apiece. You have certainly put in as much work as some of the painters whose art comes in. (That’s why it gets donated, of course.)

We have inquiring minds, those of us who moil in the mines of literature. The question was raised this week, “Which subject gets underlined the most?”

Well, I can tell you right now that Photography is a category which gets this treatment the LEAST. I feel sorry sometimes for the blokes who write the text in these big coffee table books of who stride across the page with more attitude than underwear. “You’re buying this for the text, right?” we ask our customers, and they reply, “Text? There’s text?”

Art does not have the same immunity. I have mentioned the art historian whose art books arrived with the contents of roughly one hundred pads of sticky notes festooning the pages. Are Art students thus more or less visual than the Photo students?

Reference books tend not to get underlined, and the same goes for the vast run of mathematics books. Come to think of it, it has been a while since a science book came in with much highlighting. I believe that for sheer underlinability, you MUST go to the Social Sciences and the Humanities.

Books about music sometimes have more horizontal lines than an actual piece of music. History books are frequently decorated with lines, exclamation points, and question marks. Sociology and Poli Sci can also be found well marked.

But, oh, the number of books we throw away in Literature! Prose literature, the stuff you find in our Literature and Essays categories, seems lonely WITHOUT underlining. Handle enough paperback literature and your hand will begin to recognize the feel of a book which has been marked up this way. (I don’t know if everyone who underlines first flattens the book out on a table or whether it’s the weight of the ink which compromises the marked book.)

Poetry sees nearly as much underlining as prose literature, but it doesn’t feel like that when we’re pricing it, because of the preponderance of books of poetry no one ever bothered to read, much less underline. This cuts down on the proportion of useless poetry books. (Useless from a point of saleable prettiness, that is. We do not throw away poetry because the verse itself is useless. There wouldn’t be enough left for one bookend.)

But we suspect the championship must go to Drama. Oh, poor William Shakespeare! The rate we throw away the books which have been marked up to a “Not To Be”, I’m surprised we have any left to sell at all. Theatre students form a major proportion of our donor base, apparently, for the Shakespeare we have to toss is joined by vast amounts of Ibsen, Williams, Stoppard, O’Neill, and so on. If it isn’t the students, it’s the actors, highlighting their cues and crossing out whole sections which were omitted from Western Eastern University’s 1951 production of Measure for Measure.

Now, during the Newberry’s Shakespeare exhibition, there was a modest plan to gather up all the marked-up copies of, say, Hamlet that were donated in one year and make a comparison of which passages had been underlined, highlighted, starred, or crossed out. This did not happen, but every year, we have at least one person wail over the fact that we are throwing away books, saying, “But it might be INTERESTING to see what another person underlined!”

So it might be. You let me know how much you’d be willing to PAY to read these marked-up books and I’ll stop marking them down.

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