Marginalia & Time-Travel

Harry Potter cut-outI’ve been re-reading (actually, it’s more like re-re-re-re-re-…  well, you get the idea) the Harry Potter series this week, occasionally swapping volumes with one of my kids when our progression through the books overlapped…  This is the first time through the books for Elena Grace, who (at age eight) is well acquainted with the film versions–but as Readers know, the books (particularly as you get further on in the series) contain a great deal more than the film-makers could have hoped to encompass, so she’s coming across numerous discoveries in her reading.

owleryAnd at the same time (not unlike Harry and Hermione when they use the time-turner and end up watching themselves-of-two-hours ago from the shadows) I’m running across myself-from-other-years in the pages of these books. Though I was properly brought up never to mark a book’s page, or even to turn down a page-corner or place a hardbound volume open-and-facedown to mark my place, I admit that I am now a hopelessly addicted marginalia-ist. (No, I don’t think that’s in the dictionary, but in my case it would mean a person who is unable to read without a pen—or, in the case of iPad-reading, a stylus-–in hand, ready to underline, highlight, and scribble up and down the sides of any page that gets me thinking.) So here I am, this week, engaging in a little time-travel by interacting with versions of my former self in the margins of these books.

Owl PostAt the end of every novel there’s a scribbled date with my initials—or in the case of these particular books, now, an entire column of dates—accompanied sometimes by the location where I was reading, if I were away from home. At the end of number five, the first read-through (June of 2003) I noted “Boise National Forest,” and I remember now my relief when my pre-ordered book arrived on the morning we were departing to go camping–I’d so hoped I wouldn’t have to wait another two days for the long-awaited next installment. My handwriting hasn’t changed much over the years, though my initials have. I read this particular book five times as J.V.–during a different marriage and while I still went by my first name…

Hogwarts SignThe when-I-read lists at the end of the books, however, are far less interesting to me than the how-I-read notations in the rest of its pages–and it will be interesting in future (when Elena Grace is able to read the handwritten script as well as the printed story) to see what additional questions I might end up fielding from her.

Muggle errorIn the ink that matches the reading-sign-offs from 2005, my attention was captured to references of Hermione (who comes from a Muggle, or non-wizarding family) trying to explain her world to her mystified parents. “Maybe not unlike a school for the deaf…” I wrote in one margin. Elena Grace was born deaf, and I had been overwhelmed by the prospect of learning an entirely new language to communicate with my own child. (And—having just taught her three-year-old brother to read—was entirely mystified about how I’d be able to go about that process with someone for whom the words on the page had no connections to the physical language of Sign, which we expected she would be using.)  I’ve written previously about how that story turned out for us (“Amazing Grace, How Sweet the SOUNDS“), but coming across my own notes from the time transports me back with a jolt.

Harry Potter LegosThere are bemused notes about parenting among these pages, and about teenagers (I was teaching teens during many of these readings, but didn’t anticipate at the time that I’d soon be catapulted into parenthood-of-teens via stepmotherhood) and classroom dynamics, about some of the perplexing metaphysical questions raised by the uses, abuses, and limitations of magic as it is presented in this series, and a whole slew of comparisons between the Ministry of Magic’s responses to rising danger and the Bush-II administration and Patriot Act, Hitler’s Regime, and the U.S.’s shameful internment of Japanese citizens during World War II… A note in the sixth book reminds me that (the week the book came out, and I knew my class of Physics students had been just as engrossed in reading it as I) my extra-credit question for the week was to answer Mr. Weasley’s dearest wish and explain how Muggles make airplanes stay up! (Answer: Bernoulli’s Principle…)  

The Harry Potter books (stacked in order with the first on top)–each yellow tab marks a character’s death. Quite the visual…

And there’s commentary here, too, on the deepening seriousness as the series progresses, from the almost-silly first story to a death-strewn finale in number seven, nearly worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy… (Our eleven-year-old son, Christian, just saw Hamlet performed, and compared its ending to the aptly named Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. “This book is definitely NOT happy-happy-cupcake-unicorn,” is his precise characterization of HP & the DH… Which–having just finished it yet again–I believe to be its strongest charm.)

Since I started out writing here about my own marginalia in the books, I can’t help but be bemused by the role which marginalia-in-books plays within the stories themselves… The entire sixth book (HP & the Half-Blood Prince) centers on Harry Potter’s relationship-through-marginalia with a previous student who left behind a Potions textbook filled with hand-written notes. And the finale itself, in the seventh book, is unraveled thanks to a clue left behind in the form of marginalia in another book, this one filled with the Wizarding World’s fairy tales.  (Christian just recently introduced me to the related series of books by Rowling–she has gone ahead and written some of the Hogwarts textbooks and storybooks referred to in the main novels. And fittingly, the fairy tales of Beedle the Bard are reproduced with the annotations and Marginalia of Professor Dumbledore’s copy–including that clue… Fun extra read!)

Some critics turn up their noses at these books, point to them as a mere pop-culture fad with sub-standard writing…  I can’t say I agree–I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed the writing, myself, so they must be applying different standards than mine.

But more to the point, whatever a person’s opinions about the writing, I dare anyone to debate J.K. Rowling’s genius for capturing people. Wizard or Muggle, she deftly portrays the nuances and challenges and humor of human nature–up to and including the fact that the character we most fiercely loathe throughout our reading (well, with the possible exception of Dolores Umbridge) is, in fact, one of the noblest and bravest and best people of all–though he remains loathsome right up to his death. Tucked somewhere in the depths of the fourth or fifth book (though featured somewhat more prominently in the film) is one of the truest observations of all time: “The world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters.”  Nothing is that simple–in life, or in Rowling’s writing.

Elena Grace… Already re-reading #1…

Purists may also turn up their noses at the films, which necessarily omit a great deal of the detail, but I’ll say that–with the unforgivable (according to Christian) exception of an entirely omitted battle at the end of number six–they’ve done a pretty good job of encapsulating the themes, the characters, the messages… and don’t forget the fun!  Still, there IS a great deal more to be enjoyed in the books–so if you’re one of the few remaining Muggles who hasn’t yet picked up the first Harry Potter book, I’d urge you on.

About Kana

I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a minister, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a cartographer, a joyful wife, a mom (and Granny)... a list-maker! :) View all posts by Kana

49 responses to “Marginalia & Time-Travel

  • Satis

    Brilliant – love it! I still can’t bring myself to mark a book, but I’m beginning to make use of the notes feature of my iPad. So non-destructive! And thank-you for not giving away spoilers – we haven’t read five, six or seven yet!

    • Kana Tyler

      I tried to tread delicately regarding spoilers (reminded, in fact, by your own post about these books, which I read yesterday when THIS one was half finished… Synchronicity strikes again! ;)

      I actually spent several “interim” years (before caving to full-on marginalia) bedecking all my books with Post-It notes… I had a few volumes that were nearly double their original thickness after numerous reads… But despite the trepidation with which I finally “went over to the dark side” (WRITING in books, ack!) I confess I haven’t suffered a single regret. ;) And of course (as you point out) NOW we have the option of electronic versions with note features–best of everything! :)

      • Satis

        I’m actually hoping to use this feature extensively to revise my book. I can’t stand th thought of working through endless columns of text on my computer; with no obvious pages, I lose all reference of where I am. I want to use my iPad to read the book, and make notes and comments each place I need a change.

  • Widdershins

    Books were so precious in my childhood that I still can’t bring myself to turn down a corner or make the faintest margination with a pencil. I laugh at myself, but I still can’t do it!

    I love the pile of dead character post-its … and saving all my ePennies to buy the complete eSet just as soon as I can!

    • Kana Tyler

      I completely understand–having spent decades that way myself! ;) so I’m curious–do you find yourself using “notes” options with eBooks?

      • Widdershins

        Option? what option? … :D … I only have my trusty desktop computer with eBook reading programs on it.

        But no, I’m a cover-to-cover-in-one-sitting reader, so I completely disappear into the story. I’m not present enough in this reality to make notes.

        Although … after I finish I’ve been known to jot something down in my ‘story ideas’ file if a concept catches my writerly attention, either with an eBook or a print one.

        Does that count?

  • Mickey Mills

    I must admit… I was a corner tucker. I read and re-read Stranger in a Strange Land so many times it was like the pages had ears.

    I have only read a couple of the HP books – HBP & DH. When the Kindle lending library for the series goes live on the 15th I’m going to start back with Sorcerer’s Stone and go back through them all. Really looking forward to that.

    Now if I could just start writing again!! :-s

    • Kana Tyler

      Feeling blocked? Or is something else up? You blog has been awfully quiet this month, so I’m glad to hear from you here! :)

  • Caroline

    totally devoted to the Harry Potter books though I did feel a bit she padded out the later volumes with resumes of what went before which for me was a bit of a distraction.

    • Kana Tyler

      I’ve often wondered about that “balance” for a writer-of-a-series… Do you assume your readers have read (and REMEMBERED the salient points from) previous volumes, or do you include enough information to enable the book to “stand alone” for a new (or forgetful) reader who picks it up? Tricky balance, I would imagine… :)

  • lesliehobson

    Interesting post Kana. I wonder if you overcame your complete reluctance to mark up a book in any way the same way I did – when you were encouraged in the strongest possible terms to mark up the Big Book and 12 and 12?

    • Kana Tyler

      Actually it was about ten years before I hit A.A. that I first “took the plunge” and marked up a book–it was Anne Fadiman’s “ExLibris” that finally did it… But YES, the Big Book would have converted me if I hadn’t already “gone over!” I buy a new copy about once a year because they FILL with reading-notes and quotes from our Fellows at Meetings… Keep them all, of course!

  • legionwriter

    Critics are stupid. Fiction writing’s chief purpose is to touch and connect with people. Thus, Harry Potter = quality writing.

    • Kana Tyler

      Agree about critics. :) I love the scene in “Finding Neverland” where the characters of J.M. Barrie and his producer are discussing what critics have done to theater… “They made it Important. But what’s it called? What’s it called, James?” “PLAY.”. (Of course, Johnny Depp with a Scottish accent doesn’t hurt that scene either… ;)

  • Shez

    Kana, once again a great post. I have not yet read the remaining last three books so have stayed completely away from the movies. My son has the complete set of DVDs and has offered to share, but he knows my passion to read them all first. Then we’ll watch them all in order.

    But, you intrigued me in one of your comments. How did you teach your beautiful Elena Grace to read?

    If it’s my book and especially if it’s a paperback I freely mark, highlight, postit and bend corners. But if it’s a hardback I take note in a note book. Just like when I was in school.

    • Kana Tyler

      It’s intriguing, the “Rules” we make for ourselves, isn’t it? :) For some reason, I HAVE to use the same pen all the way through a book on any given read–drove me nuts last night when I couldn’t find the burgundy-ink pen I’d been using all the way through HP & the DH, and had to switch to another color… If I’d STARTED with the other color, that would be fine, but a switch? Think there’s a little OCD going on there… ;)

      With regard to Elena Grace, she is our Miracle Child who defied every medical specialist, diagnosis, and prognosis, and started school with perfectly NORMAL hearing. (And already reading, thank you very much. :) I linked above to an earlier post about that particular Miracle… :)

  • idahograndy

    Hugs to you and thanks for yet another good read from the one who admonished you for writing in (marring!) your books. Silly me. Still can’t bring myself to write in a hard-bound; I’m testing the paperback waters.
    Enjoy all that summer reading — and readers!

    • Kana Tyler

      In all fairness, it wasn’t only you! ;) Somewhere I have a book titled “Marginalia,” which points out that annotation was commonly accepted practice UNTIL the advent of lending-libraries…. I think we have a whole Library-Culture now, in which we ALL got programmed not to write in our books. As evidenced by the “struggles” a lot of us went through (see various comments above) when we DID venture into annotation… And hey, no complaints–you had me READING! ;) Love you, My Ma.

  • Melynda

    I’ve never been a Harry Potter fan. My kids went through a phase where they read all the books and watched all the movies. However I do mark my pages up when I read a book well when i could read a book. Now I can’t so much.

  • Kathryn McCullough

    As someone who has studied literature and then taught if for a living, I believe we mark the books we love most–the ones that affect us most deeply–that mark themselves on us most strongly. Fun post, Kana.

  • Kitty

    Great post! I really don’t know if I could ever bring myself to mark up a book. :) But, I love the idea of writing down the date when read or notes one where you were in your lifetime, etc. Because there are so many books that, when I come across them later in life, it immediately takes me back to a specific time and place. Maybe I’ll start out small by writing notes and leaving them tucked into the book. :)

  • Miranda Gargasz

    Reblogged this on scatteringmoments and commented:
    So, I just can’t help sharing these posts I read that touch me in some way. As a teacher during the height of Harry’s popularity, I never understood why parents were up in arms and wanting to ban these books. There is so much in them, so much wonderful, beautiful life experience that it almost seems a crime to rob your kids, not to mention yourself, of their rich language and the triumph of an underdog, not to mention a truly unsung hero in Severus Snape. Thanks, Kana, for writing so well what I’ve felt from the start.

  • Sandy Sue

    Hmm. Perhaps it’s time for a re-read.

  • Eliza Shane

    Beautifully written, Kana. I agree with you, that Rowling has done an excellent job in bringing her characters to life for us. The writing is fantastic, the stories enchanting. They are destined to be timeless classics, for sure.

    I love your idea of marginalia! I indulge in it, too, but hadn’t thought to record information in the back about when/where/how I was doing my readings. Lovely idea!

    Thank you also, for your input on the subsequent writings available about the HP series. I have wondered about picking them up and checking them out!

    • Kana Tyler

      They’re brief reads, but entirely enchanting. :) The “Tales of Beedle the Bard” comes with Dumbledore’s annotations, and the “Magical Creatures” book is presented as Harry’s own copy, with his (and Ron’s) irreverent comments & scribbles included… Haven’t yet read “Quidditch for the Ages,” but it’s here waiting for me… ;)

  • Eliza Shane

    Reblogged this on Eliza Shane and commented:
    Kana is one of my favorite reads everyday. I am inspired by her writing, and her life! So grateful to walk along her path for awhile.

  • lizsturm

    I like that idea of meeting your younger self in the margins. I’m currently rolling a shwack load of pennies and I keep looking at the minting years and remembering where I was then. Keep wondering if I ever touched this coin before this time, and what the me of those years ago, holding a brand new penny in her hand, would think of me now.

  • squirrel circus

    You’ve pushed me one step closer to writing in my books — I know that I’m always trying to re-find spots that I love — notes or tabs would probably help. I did go on a spree of underlining in books, but went a little nuts in books that were SO amazing almost everything was underlined….rendering the process somewhat useless! :)

  • judithatwood

    You’ve written a charming review of the books, and included parts of yourself which apply so well. Lovely post, as always!

  • Pat

    Loved the HP series – read and reread! The only books I could ever mark up were textbooks (the ones I paid for), but I’m enjoying bookmarking and notes via Kindle.

  • 4amWriter

    My mother encouraged us to mark up our books. She thought it was how we taught ourselves to read and write. As an adult, I don’t do it so much. Rather, I jot my notes or impressions in a separate writing notebook. I’m not sure why I veered from a childhood behavior, other than I do find comments in the margins to be distracting.

    I do love your idea of dating certain books that ultimately help you remember your previous reading experience. That’s neat.

    • Kana Tyler

      How funny that we each had such specific (though opposite) training in our youth, and that we’ve each veered from the training–crossing paths, as it were. My first husband was of your mind about marginalia–he HATED reading any book I’d already read, and would be quite grumpy about my distracting mark-ups. (I’m happy to say that my current husband, however, is not such a grumpy character, and seems bemused by the oddments my brain tends to throw into the pages… I suspect, actually, that the first husband’s underlying objection may not have been the marking-up of the books, per se, but the evidence that I had a mental life that didn’t include him… Hmm.)

      • idahograndy

        Actually, knowing him, I suspect that it was because you HAD a mental life.

        • Kana Tyler

          Ah, that was my Unforgivable Sin, was it not? I was supposed to remain static, the 19-year-old version of me whom he had first met, a trophy gathering dust with his name on it.

          I was just conversing with another blogger about conventions of address, and how unhappy I was with the envelopes of Grandma’s letters to me after I married, addressed (of course) to “Mrs. Brian Vega,” with no hint of my OWN name, as if *I* had ceased to exist. While I realize that it’s simply a matter of proprieties in Grandma’s mind, it struck ME all wrong–even then. I’m grateful now that I’m encouraged to be… fully MYSELF. :) Joyfully married, but not defined (or constrained) by the “Mrs.”

          • idahograndy

            And (no surprise) Grandma Joan still wants her birthday card to come addressed to “Mrs. Carl ……” Then Christian came along and re-named her Poppa Joan. Tee hee.

  • marneymcnall

    I do read with a pen in hand! Or if it’s on my Kindle…yes, I highlight a lot. Beautiful words strung together…make me happy. My dad underlines and writes in the margins…and I love reading his notes as much as the book itself. Love to see what others find interesting. On my Kindle, I actually do go through the pages of underlines…enjoying them all over again.

  • englishteacherconfessions

    You write, “At the end of every novel there’s a scribbled date with my initials—or in the case of these particular books, now, an entire column of dates—accompanied sometimes by the location where I was reading, if I were away from home.”
    Love this idea–can I steal?

    You also write, “[C]oming across my own notes from the time transports me back with a jolt.”
    I love reading old marginalia as well–my own, of course, but also the notes of others. I have a few precious books of my long-deceased grandmother, who never went to college but who was a true seeker, a voracious autodidact. Reading her thoughts in the margins of these books makes me feel almost as if she is communicating with me from the dead. Her ideas/emotions thus transcend time/space–they often bring tears to my eyes.

    • Kana Tyler

      Of course–steal away! :) Like you, I have several books that belonged to my grandma (who gave the valedictorian speech at Barnard College on D-Day, after staying up all night listening to the radio-reports)–and I’ve always lamented the fact that she belonged to the never-mark-a-book school of thought. I’d SO love to have HER words in the margins of her Complete Works of Shakespeare…

  • Let's CUT the Crap!

    I can’t mark up a book either(as another commenter mentioned) or turn down it’s corners or put my coffee cup on it or…

    However, reading about your habit of notations and comparisons, warms the cockles of my heart. I see the book totally belongs to you in a different way from mine. Wonderful.

  • Scribblerbean

    Beautiful insights on children, reading, magic, and marginalia…they all do seem to go together, don’t they? I gave my daughter HP1 to read when she was 8 (she is a college senior now, oh how time flies). She reads widely and deeply and in that respect I know I did good as a parent. How I wish I’d kept all the books I read and reread as a child, but moving a lot means dropping many treasures along the way. The things they could tell me today. Sigh. Thank you for a lovely post.

    • Kana Tyler

      I know the feeling! It’s one of the things I do like about eBooks—my whole e-library (including my marginalia) fits in my purse in the form of an iPad… The next move will be easier! ;)

  • Nikole

    I have to ask, that second picture, of Harry and Hedwig in the Owlery, where did you find? I ask because I saw a picture previously of it made into a shirt, which I would very much love to buy. You are the only other person who seems to have a copy of this photo. Thank you.

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