Friday, January 13, 2006

UndErSCoRe: The Game

Bored? Below are your instructions:


Go into a good-sized library (multiple levels, preferably) and go to the third floor (second, for you readers in Europa). Hopefully, it’s fairly empty, as third stories generally are. Now, meander around until you find a section made up entirely of well-bound non-fiction volumes of approx. 1.5 to 3 in. wide, dating back to the 1940s. Don’t recognize a single title? Good. Find one shelved at just below eye-level, a book that seems particularly obscure. Not a particularly technical work, mind, just one nobody would ever bother with who didn‘t have to.

Sitting down (or not) read the first few paragraphs of the introduction to get a feel for the author’s tone and his respects toward his audience (all four of them, if you’ve chosen properly). At this point, just casually flip through. You may find it in the intro itself, you may find it in the first three chapters. After that it becomes less likely, but it could still be there.

Oh, what are you looking for, you ask? Those little pencil lines drawn under what at first appear to be random sentences. A lot of library books have them, you know. If you don’t find them on the first try, just go for it again with another book. I doubt that (utilizing the guidelines above) I’ve ever gone more than five books without finding them. If you get two or more losers, try one shelved along the floor—those can be rich, too.

Once you’ve found that forgotten cellulose relic with the appropriate graphite markings, just start reading what he-who-came-before decided was most important. No, you probably won’t get a feel for the whole book this way, but you may get a feel for a certain pencil-wielding tower of anonymity.
Keep an eye on the underlines themselves. Are they predominantly straight or squiggled, light or dark? If they vary from one to another, it’s just possible two and not just one have left their mental track-marks behind them. Keep a look on each one’s development of thought over the course of the chapters.


I’ve heard various academics gripe about these people, the ones who leave their penciled notes in library books. I am not one of those people (I seldom even leave notes in my own books unless I have a spare volume just for doing so), but I seldom get particularly miffed at the individuals who are. So long as it’s in pencil…

Just think about it. Someone picked up some offbeat book for some unknown reason and put a few pencil strokes in it. Maybe they intended to erase them before they returned the tome and just forgot about it. In any case, whoever comes after may erase if he so chooses. And it’s not like very many people are going to be reading this particular work. (Again, if you have chosen wisely.)


Try to see your little exercise as a pursuit of information. Form a framework of how the previous reader’s thought process worked. Just how intelligent was he? I mean, I’ve found things underlined that… yeah, the reader really didn’t have any idea what was going on. Other times the brilliance, insightfulness, downright genius of my predecessor has been made obvious. The way he or she managed to draw connections between seemingly unrelated things to draw a fuller picture of the truth of the book’s subject… Breathtaking.

But on a more personal level, who was it that read this book last? And what was he doing with the book? Was it a student (not unlikely)? A student of what? A prof? Just some ordinary seeker of knowledge? What were his/her assumptions about the subject going into the book? Coming out?


Say, maybe this exercise should be made a requirement for Psych courses.

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