Writing in the Margins

Heart of Darkness is #780 in the 2007 Edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. The Stone Angel and Mercy Among the Children are not on the list, but should be.

I’m reading a book right now because I have to. Not because it’s on The List, but because I have to, for work (I`m going to an event where the keynote speech will be about Clay Shirky’s `”Cognitive Surplus”).

It’s a been a long time since I “had” to read something. It got me thinking about reading for pleasure vs. reading for school or for work. Sometimes, I think analyzing a book to death can ruin the experience. I read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad in Grade 12 English, and years later, I can’t just read it; I can only see it in bits and pieces – oh, yeah, here’s an example of racist colonial attitudes. Here`s an example of the untamed jungle symbolizing… whatever (it`s been a while). I *know* it`s a great book.  But I just can`t see it.

But, I read Wuthering Heights in the same class and it`s stuck with me as one of my all-time favourites, despite endlessly cataloguing the ways in which weather parallels the character`s personalities. Seriously… it rains a lot, and everyone is depressed, and I GET IT. I also remember reading The Stone Angel by Margret Laurence in Grade 11, but I don`t remember writing the paper. I don`t really remember much about that English class at all, except for the day that the teacher told me to “be the heroine of [my] own life”  (like the main character, Hagar is – she’s the model of a tough broad). That encapsulates the whole novel for me, and I thought it was super profound at the time. Okay, I still do!

Then there are books I wish I’d read in school. I just don’t have the time or brain power to really think them through anymore. I would have loved to have heard what an English teacher thinks about David Adams Richard’s Mercy Among the Children. It’s in my top ten, and I still don’t fully get it. Gist of the story: man makes a pact to never do harm to another human being.  This simple choice destroys his life and the lives of his family, but he can’t let go of his promise. But what does it all *mean*?


And I really miss highlighting and making notes in the margin! I can’t be the only one. I pretty much read library books now, and it makes me sad that I can’t mark them up. I’m probably dating myself. Do “kids these days” even mark up books? How is this going to work with e-readers? So many questions!

Anyways. Did English class ruin books for you? Or did it give you a chance to really get into them in a way you can’t today? Or did you skip out and go to the mall?

I probably used this quote in my Grade 12 HoD paper. Descriptions of nature *always* symbolize something. “Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.”



  1. Kenna

    You are so studious – I am going to the same talk for work purposes, but totally didn’t read the book. You’ll have to give me the Coles notes. 🙂

    To be honest, I don’t remember much about anything I read in high school. All that comes to mind are dramatic romances, alliances between groups, and other such gossip from actually being there…not studying. :p

    I do remember reading “The Giver” in elementary school though, and we did make notes and highlight. But now I mostly read library books too, so I’m with you on that one!

    • lauratfrey

      Re. Cognitive Surplus – it started out pretty good. The general concept made sense and I wanted to know more. He compares watching TV to a part-time job we’ve all had for the past 60 or so years that’s sucked up all our free time and not given us much to show for it. Now things are changing – we can spend our free time in more connected/productive ways. But, the rest of the book was sort of preaching to the converted rather than offering ways in which the “surplus” can be applied. I’m interested to see what the speaker says about it.

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