Writing in the margins of Dani Shapiro’s Devotion

April 9th, 2011 § 11 comments

I’m not the kind of person who reads books twice. My husband wears down the fibers in the covers of some of his books, corners frayed by his hands as he holds and bends the written pages. Me? I barely have enough time to read a book once. My attention span is short, my free time small. With three children and a house to take care of there just doesn’t seem to be time to do everything I want.

This morning I awoke knowing what I wanted to do. I wanted to re-read sections of Dani Shapiro‘s second memoir, Devotion. About twenty pages into it I realized I was literally itching to do something: write in the book. I hadn’t allowed myself to do that the first time. Lately I had felt that my books (especially ones written by people I knew in person or on Twitter, even moreso if signed by the author) should remain pristine. I have eschewed e-readers in every form for this very reason… typing notes in margins is not as satisfying as using colored ink to have my interactive conversation with the author. Sometimes exclamation points or “YES!” will interrupt the creamy expanse of the margin, but more often than that my graduate school training has led me to issue challenges to the author. Questions that start with “But what about…” or the challenging, “Does not take into account…” are what you will find in my books. As I try to process what the author says I imagine I am conversing with them. And, in fact, I am; writers write to start a conversation with the reader. If all the reader does is absorb without processing I think the author might be disappointed.

As I started Dani’s book this morning I realized the pristine condition of my hardcover was getting in my way. I needed to interact with it to really get the full benefit of her words. It seems the right thing to do. Only pages in to this second time through, I was already finding questions I want to ask her. I was, after all, a different person by my second reading. I was coming to the book with more experiences, different concerns and thoughts than I previously had. I came to the book with many of the same questions Dani herself was seeking to answer when she started writing. I realized that in the same way she had made sense of what happened to her by writing, I needed to do that too. Writing in the margins was my microcosm of that experience; without “talking back” I had missed a lot of the beauty and significance of her words.

I already feel myself digesting her words in a different way. The same way I cannot experience major events in my life without writing I realized this morning I cannot make sense of words without reacting. As my memory has declined and my mental capacities have suffered over the past few years I can’t rely on them to retain the memories of the sentences and paragraphs that have spoken to me. I need to wrestle with them, tease them out, formulate responses.

My book will be riddled with ink by the time I am done. But I realized today that is precisely as it should be. I think Dani would like that. I think it means I’m learning.

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§ 11 Responses to Writing in the margins of Dani Shapiro’s Devotion"

  • Chris Alexander says:

    It strikes me that you’re describing a nearly sacred or mystical kind of relationship. I love the idea of thoughts/experiences that grow in one person’s mind and are transformed to words on a page that go on to transform/impact another person’s thoughts and experiences. I imagine that must be the most fulfilling thing for a writer.

  • Dani Shapiro says:

    Lisa, I love this. What a beautiful way to start my day. I feel the same way about books, about that sacred interaction, relationship, between reader and book, reader and writer. Nothing makes me happier than when someone comes up to me with a beaten-up copy of my book, the pages fluttering with scribbled notes and post-its. I find that I end up treasuring the books I’ve done this with even more, because they stand as a testament to who I was when I read them, and what they meant to me. Thank you, thank you.

  • Lisa — I felt exactly the same way when I read Devotion. I was reading on my Kindle, and I think I wore the highlight feature out! Your post is beautiful. — Beth

  • Robin Black says:

    The books I have written in the most, are the ones I love best. I think it’s a lovely – deserved – tribute to Dani that you want to have that conversation on the page!

  • Erika Robuck says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. Dani’s is a book worth reading and rereading. I’m sad I can’t scribble in the margins of my Kindle (notes feature just isn’t the same) because I’m a book doodler. You have inspired me to buy it in paper so I can have that sensory interaction. Great post!

  • Lindsey says:

    My copy of Devotion is dog-eared, full of marginalia (one of my favorite words) and underlinings. It is the single book, more than any other, that changed how I think of myself in the world. More generally, though, I tend to interact with my books in this way. That’s a major reason I too have stayed away from e-readers. It’s also a reason that I am loathe to lend out my books – a friend recently had an ARC of a novel that I’d adored and she kept it for a long time and I was actively anxious about getting it back!

  • I love this post!!

    I’ve never been able to bring myself to write in books until very recently. Then, I bought Patti Digh’s Creative is a Verb. Patti specifically says she wants you to write in the book for many of the same reasons you describe above. She even deliberately left her margins extra wide so readers would have more room to write.

    Hugs to you!

  • Allison W says:

    DEVOTION has been on my list of books to read for months. I know @rachelintheoc loved it, too. I’ve been a margin-scribbler since college, but grad school has taught me to interact in much the same way you describe: questioning, challenging. I still add exclamation marks, yesses, and even ughs, though; sometimes those are the most appropriate ways to express shock, agreement, or disgust. Lately I’ve taken to underlining favorite lines and dog-earing pages- a symptom of the timecrush of my own life, I fear.

    Great post, Lisa!

  • Lisa,
    What a fascinating post about a book I also greatly respect and adore. I too often feel like, gee, I shouldn’t write in a book. But as a writer, I want to do what I can to remember what I like the best. I use sticky notes to mark pages I want to go back to, but I also often jot things in pencil in the book, too.
    I’ve done book reviews for publication, too, so there is no way I can read a book for review and not mark it up some. Again, wonderful post.

  • gary percesepe says:

    funny—my copy of devotion is not as marked up as my copy of dani’s SLOW MOTION, which is ragd and dog eared.

    books read us.

  • Rachel says:

    Lisa, I need to start breaking down the walls of white on my books. I love the idea of a self-interaction with the author. Pen on paper. With Devotion, I have a small journal of quotes and passages scribbled out. I refer to it often when I feel a little lost. Great post & Happy Birthday, Dani!

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