Opening the virgin pages of a new book is a special feeling, like an explorer stepping onto a foreign shore for the first time. But the characteristic new-book smell escapes as you open the covers and turn over the first pages; a mixture of size, printer’s ink and freshly dried glue.
I prefer to read library books with their worn covers and dog-eared pages, after being handled many times over. American photographer Edward Weston described a photograph as a message you send into the future. It is the same with used books, which often contain messages for future readers, “reading lines”.
Reading lines in old books are reminiscent of the sacred “dreamlines” or “songlines”* of aboriginees. Their sacred creation myths tell of the legendary beings who wandered over the Australian continent, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – plants, trees, rocks, waterholes, bushes, animals – and so singing the world into existence. Songlines form a labyrinth of invisible pathways, knowledge handed down by their ancestors, to help the aboriginees find their way across the outback.
Reading lines are the signs and pathways left behind in books by previous readers. They will guide you through the book, if you know how to follow the lines and decipher the messages left by earlier generations. Some signs also give clues about their reading habits. Cocoa stains and biscuit crumbs, often Digestive, point to the surreptitious bedtime reader who is not too fussy with borrowed books – or sleeping on gritty sheets. For some, the lingering fragrance of tobacco may enhance the experience of reading a novel about post-war life. For others it may be a total turn off; so much so that they close the book for good and possibly miss out on a good read.
Other readers leave more visible and deliberate traces on their journey through the book, signs which can be followed in much the same way as the aboriginees’ songlines. In well-read library books, notes, comments, scribbles, brackets, underlinings and exclamations often accompany you on your journey between the covers, your guide.
Recently I had the company of a wealth of reading lines left by an anonymous annotater throughout Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair”. She, I am sure it was a woman, had used a mixture of marginal comments, underlining, brackets, exclamations and other scribbles in bold black, as she followed the fates of Maurice, Sarah and Henry in Greene’s book about relationsships in post-war London.
A key message is the passage – and her comment – found at the bottom of page 47:
“Just as I went home that first evening with no exhilaration but only a sense of sadness and resignation, so again and again I returned home on other days with the certainty that I was only one of many men – the favourite lover for the moment. This woman, whom I loved so obsessively that if I woke in the night I immediately found the thought of her in my brain and abandoned sleep, seemed to give up all her time to me. And yet I could feel no trust: in the act of love I could be arrogant, but alone I had only to look in the mirror to see doubt, in the shape of a lined face and a lame leg – why me?”
This is Maurice, doubting Sarah’s love for him despite her contriving a couple of pages further on to make noisy love to him on the living-room floor, while her husband Henry is upstairs in bed with a cold, a lunch tray and a hot water-bottle for company. She spontaneously declares her love for Maurice on page 50: ”I’ve never loved anybody or anything as I do you”. Despite this, Maurice still doubts in her love for him. This is one of Greene’s central themes in the book.
By adding the comment: “how I felt with Stefan” our anonymous annotator draws a parallel to her own feelings – and her relationship with Stefan, doubting his undivided love for her. But who has added this comment, who is she? And who is Stefan?
Several clues to her identity can be found by studying the many reading lines scattered throughout the book. Her comments are brief, apparently spontaneous, to the point and written with miniscule but bold hand. Her handwriting imitates printing, letters not joined up but rounded in the prescribed school style of the last ten or twenty years. The writer is young – under thirty, probably early twenties.
For the next 150 pages I did not feel alone as I followed the complicated relation between Sarah and Maurice, and indeed also with her husband Henry. Following the reading lines left by the annotator convinced me that my companion was using the book as therapy to understand her own feelings for her lover Stefan – and in particular his lack of feelings for her. At times the parallel story took over. My reading focused more and more on those parts of Greene’s story which she marked with thick brackets. These passages were not about Maurice and Sarah, rather events and feelings she recognised from her relationship with Stefan. As she made her way through the book, she marked more and more dismal passages. From periods of calm, to tenderness, to hate and jealousy, and finally death.
“Hatred is very like physical love; it has its crises and then its periods of calm.”
“After possession comes the tenderness of responsibility when one forgets one is only a lover, responsible for nothing.”
She highlighted several other passages where Maurice discusses hatred and jealousy. She hated two-timing Stefan and was at the same time jealous of his other “lovers of the moment”.
“If I hate her so much as I sometimes do, how can I love her? Can one really hate and love? Or is it only myself that I really hate?
“the nightmare’s nearly over”
“She had been as dead then as she was dead now. As long as one suffers one lives.”
The book has a tragic ending, a real end to the affair. Both stories were quite depressing. I am convinced our annotator lost Stefan, just as Maurice and Henry lost Sarah. Her final message in the margin was: “Everything has a cost.”
* Read more in “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin