Some readers of my generation (born in the late Thirties or early Forties) might, while reading books taken from their college libraries, have had this experience. A scholar who preceded you, craving anonymity, scribbles on page 50 of a book by Thomas Hardy or Dickens, this cryptic instruction: Please see page 73. You look up page 73 only to find another tantalising invite: Please see page 132. The game thus went on and, ultimately, on page 424, you find your “host”, perhaps wearied by now, confronting you with brutal plain speak: You are a fool.
Duped thus, I have often thought why at all I should have wasted my time only to be informed of a fact known to me already. Of course, a vindication of the legal maxim, “res ipsa loquitur” (action speaks for itself) my very action being proof of what the puckish guy hurled at me!
Gratuitous observations sprinkled liberally on the pages of books show variations in themes: say, about the author (“The writer should get his brains, if any, examined at the earliest”), a character in a novel (“The villain should be dipped in boiling oil”), the style (“I shall be happy to supply the author with a copy of the book on English grammar by Wren and Martin”), casting pearls of wisdom (“A stitch in time saves nine”) and finally, unabashed writer-specific declarations (“I love Maggie”). When the main text gets on your nerves, the chance to picture to yourselves, with some creativity and imagination, the physical features of the baldies, fatties and shorties who authored the adventitious gems is akin to the summer rain. And if you do not like the angularities of a few you drew in your mind, you can spend some time editing their faces and limbs to make them look almost human!
Pre-owned books (a la “pre-owned cars” instead of “second-hand cars”) are a separate class by themselves. A book like Lady Chatterley’s Lover might well have its juicy passages merely underlined in pencil, audibly silent on the reader’s inclinations, while in a book on criminal law, you may find the owner’s note to himself (“Same intention is not the same as common intention”). Once I saw in a textbook on economics a quote from a reputed authority, “Whenever six economists are gathered, there are seven opinions”, against which a desperate and bewildered student had scrawled a marginal remark, “One hundred per cent true!” It would be wrong to hold that opinion writers who air unsolicited profundities are all shallow critics and cynics. I, for one, have had occasion to read marginal comments couched in style more erudite and elegant than that of the original author, reflecting deeper perspicuity and width of vision. A pity indeed that we, the admirers of such welcome intruders, aren’t able, because of their shyness, to seek them out for greater reading entertainment.
All said and done, the pleasure one gets from reading the jottings of the “geniuses” hiding their light beneath the bushel is at times equal to, if not more than, what the print version affords. The funniest (and probably the most honest) one-word remark I have ever come across on the concluding portion of a book is “IDIOT” which left me wondering why the writer, in that rare moment of self-realisation, failed to put his name and signature!