Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 17, 2015


One of the books I’m reading now is from the library. The Counselor and I are tending more and more to get our reading material from the library instead of buying it. We’ve each owned hundreds of books in our lifetimes, and still have more books than we have room for in Rancho Retro, so the library is an outstanding option.

But, it’s odd to read without a pencil in my hand. I’m accustomed to writing in my books: underlining passages, drawing vertical lines alongside memorable sections, writing comments at the top of pages that call out significant action, or putting the names of new characters in the margin as they appear. You longtime readers who were with me in the early days of Under Western Skies followed along with me as I spent a year reading A la recherche du temps perdu, informed by the marks I made with a pencil that steadily wore down from full length to a small nub as I made notes through the 3,000-odd pages (click on any image for larger view).

Le crayon Proust

Le crayon Proust

It may be anathema to some of you book-lovers, but, to me, those marginal notes are what make many of my books so precious to me, from the years jotted at the end to indicate when I’ve read (or re-read) them, to translations of foreign phrases to the verbatim notes given by the scholars who lectured me on them.

The astute critic, poet, translator and memoirist, Clive James, wrote a stunning book, Cultural Amnesia, which is an excellent example of what a careful reader can glean from a lifetime of careful reading with pencil in hand.

I’m certain I learned to do this in school (secondary school for readers in Britain, Australia, Canada). Assuredly NOT in the school-provided textbooks: strictly verboten, since they were generously provided to me by the taxpaying citizens of Ohio, but in books we bought ourselves to read for English class: LIT-tra-chure, as Kathryn Drake would pronounce them. This practice became ingrained in me once I hit college (and owned the books and could do what I wished to them). As texts got denser and typefaces smaller while I delved into Shakespeare and Renaissance literature and finally the crammed pages of Old English and Middle English texts, my marginalia became impressively tiny, produced with the extremely fine point of a BIC accountant’s pen (an extravagance at 49 cents, versus the standard BIC at 19 cents).

Here’s part of a page in my worn edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with notes written mostly about forty years ago.

Sir Gawain Cawley 8287 (640x480)

As more students and the rest of us adopt electronic books, will marginalia become a fading practice? I have an e-reader, myself, although I use it very little. I do know that it gives me the ability to add electronic notes. So far, I haven’t felt the need to do that, but it’s probably a skill one needs to pursue scholarship today.

And why do it, anyway? Am I going to go back and study it? No, in most cases, although that example from Gawain, above, is still useful to me when I pick it up for the annual reading as New Year’s approaches. Same thing holds true for Beowulf, or with finding a passage in Proust or — another author whose books have hundreds of characters — Thomas Pynchon.

What puts all this in mind is that library book I’m reading now. On a few pages some previous reader has felt compelled to correct the author’s text with penciled notes. Let me make that clear: They didn’t correct misprints or typos. They corrected the way the author expressed something. The best example of how silly this is can be shown by the fact that this mystery grammarian crossed out a word and placed it in a different part of the verb phrase, in order to avoid what’s known as a “split infinitive.” The idea of the split infinitive is a totally made-up one, more than a century old, and has nothing to do with “correct” or “incorrect” English. So  silly. But there may be some teachers of English out there still insisting that it’s only correct to say “We genuinely were amazed” rather than “We were genuinely amazed.” Somewhere out there that poor soul is waging the losing battle against the tide of split infinitives, armed with the conviction probably instilled in him or her in Sister Rosaria’s 8th grade grammar study that an adverb must never occur inside the verb phrase.

It’s okay to write in your books, class. Just be careful what you write. Someone else might judge you by it.

© Brad Nixon 2015, 2017



  1. Ah, to boldly go where no strict Latin-focused grammarian dare tread!


    • If you are enough of a pack rat to have saved some corporate publications from my day out our mutual employer, you will see that, as publisher, I was constrained to enforce my boss’s insistence on that rule. It drove us crazy. Yes, the product of a Latin-based education. I miss him, but not that stupid rule. Thanks.


  2. Fascinating! Once again, you have educated me.

    Until now, I did not know that the “split infinitive rule” was a totally made up rule (no doubt made up by the British and foisted upon gullible and ignorant Americans), and that it actually would be correct English to now split that infinitive. All my life, I have apparently been wasting my time attempting to dutifully avoid splitting my infinitives! Of course, even though I successfully avoided violating that non-rule, I violated many others (as reflected in my grades in English classes). 🙂

    Here’s another one: is ending a sentence with a preposition also a totally made up rule (and another rule I have wasted more time trying to generally follow)? Which rule would you subscribe to?


    • La Boheme, thanks for that. Rather than making a lengthy reply here, I’ll post another blog entry about the history of the split infinitive. Meanwhile, readers, I welcome your own comments on both split infinitives and ending a sentence with a preposition. I’d particularly like to hear from our readers in England, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, etc. (I know you’re out there), about what prevails in your versions of English.
      I expect several references to Winston Churchill’s admonition about prepositions at the end of a sentence, at the very least.
      See you in a day or two with more.


      • I my current reincarnation as a Teacher of English to Persian (Farsi/Dari) speakers, I have access to a truly bewildering array of ESL material from around the world. All I can say is that there are many different academic opinions on what is “acceptable” in terms of English grammar and usage. I also note that ESL books go “out of fashion” within about a decade of publishing, as the teaching of the language adapts to changing times.

        I barely recognize some of the grammatical constructs in recent text books…. adjectival phrases, adverbial phrases etc… and the term “future tense” no longer exists, with the relevant modal forms having been absorbed into “present continuous” tense (go figure).


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