How I returned to paper books

In 2012, the company I worked for at the time sent me on a two week assignment to Canada. The one thing I brought back with me was an Amazon Kindle which was a gift from my uncle who lived in Toronto. I found it invaluable. I had to travel by bus a lot and I could read a bulky book with one hand while hanging on to a roof strap with the other. Turning pages was easy with a single thumb movement.


Amazon Kindle

Since this was only the basic Kindle, moving to a particular page was often problematic, but this seemed a small price to pay. The Kindle went everywhere with me, when I travelled, at my bedside, when I ate and even at my work desk. At the time, I read voraciously. One book after another averaging a couple of tomes each week.

That stopped when I took an online Coursera course on Greek and Roman Mythology. One of the first parts of the course was to read the complete Odyssey. No problem, I downloaded a copyright free translation and rushed through the whole thing within a week. The whole thing seemed a bit dry I felt. Tastes had evolved and there wasn’t much in the old story that hadn’t been mined.


Odysseus escapes from the wrath of the Cyclops

Then the class got around to the reading. Every week, a couple of chapters were assigned to be read and the next week, their significance was discussed in the lectures. I was aghast. I had missed out all the subtle meaning and context. I had misinterpreted characters. I hadn’t asked the right questions. In fact, I hadn’t asked any questions. I had guzzled the whole thing down like it had been a drinking contest. I took what was written at face value. I did not wonder “why” a character would have wanted to do one thing instead of another or why certain outcomes were inevitable. I also missed all of the underlying themes and messages.

For instance, in the very first line goes

Sing to me of the man, muse, the man of twists and turns

The poet tells us what the whole tale is about. It is the story of a man. A man whose nature is as full of twists and turns as his journey proved to be.

Why did Homer start his story not at the beginning but in the middle with Odysseus on Circe’s island? Then too, why did he not start by telling us about Odysseus but instead start on Olympos where the gods debated the fate of mortals? Then he took a long detour describing the state of Odysseus’s home and family before going to the man himself.

These are all questions that a thoughtful reader should ask. I just breezed past them all. I realized I had to stop reading fast. Books like food had to be broken down into pieces and chewed upon to get their full flavour and nourishment.

But here’s the thing with slow reading, it is best done with a pencil. Underline any passage that seems interesting or of lasting value. Write any unanswered question in the margins or just your thoughts on reading it. This was also a major change. Earlier, I had a low regard for marginalia. Somehow it seemed to be polluting a pure work. A presumptuous intrusion on another’s meditations.

But lately, I have come to view it more as a dialogue. It represents what I am bringing to the reading. A lot of marginalia means I am engaging with the text. I reflect on what is written and form my own opinions no matter how inane an record them for later.

A while ago, I saw a picture of the inside of David Foster Wallace’s copy of CS Lewis’s Narnia. Every square centimeter seemed full of noted in his crabbed hand. It might be as simple as masking a paragraph and writing “Edmund as hero” or it could be a detailed insight into the life and character of the protagonist. You can see some of his books here.

I realize that newer e-readers allow this kind of note taking very easily, but I find there is no substitute for a pencil. I don’t know why this should be the case. I find that in meetings, notes on a screen can’t take the place of scrawls on a white board, when brainstorming a pencil and diary inspire more confidence than a laptop with any software package and when reading a pencil is friendlier than a cursor. Blame it on the remains of a pre-digital childhood and education but that’s the way it is.


Classical Marginalia

And that is why I returned to paper books, so I could scribble on the margins.


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