Have spent a dozen hours this week slowly getting my highlights out of the Amazon cloud and then putting them into my own note-taking software. This lets me access roughly ten years of highlighted passages from over 500 books (it doesn’t include the large number of public domain books that I read and highlighted, which is a shame.) It’s interesting to see the kinds of passages that struck me.
Early on, I sometimes highlighted passages that struck me as good descriptive writing. I’ve never been great at descriptive writing, and I still mourn the deficit. Prose fiction is essentially composed of four things: sense perception; dialogue; narrative summary; and rumination. Nobody wants to overuse rumination (because the entire internet and most of the noise in our own head is already composed of rumination), so if you’re not good at desciption, then you’re essentially left with work that’s mostly dialogue and narrative summary. Kind of a pain!
But at the same time, I just don’t like describing things. In my own life, I’m not particularly observant or present–my life is mostly disembodied and mental, full of remembrances and thoughts and feelings and flashes of perception. Anyway, ten years ago I was still trying to get good at this stuff, which is why I would highlight passages like this:
The coast, the endlessly rewinding spills of the tide, green curbs of seawater breaking into flat white sizzling foam.
—Private Citizen by Tony Tulathimutte
That’s pretty good descriptive writing. I probably wouldn’t put ‘rewinding’ and ‘spills’ and ‘curbs’ into the same image, because it’s a mixed metaphor–but the basic conceit (the ebb of waves looks like the rewinding of the initial crash) is something I could never come up with.
But that’s really a minority of what I highlighted. In general, my highlights fall into three categories:
- neat bits of narrative summary
- good observations about human nature
I am a sucker for a good aphorism (who isn’t?), and I’ve got hundreds in here. The Journals of Jules Renard provide a few good ones, like:
To have a horror of the bourgeois is bourgeois.
Modesty is becoming to the great. What is difficult is to be modest when one is a nobody.
Lol, whose are fun, aren’t they? I’ve always wanted to be a person who knows quotes.
Neat bits of narrative summary
Once I stopped trying to become a better descriptive writer, I started leaning more heavily on narrative summary (where I’ve had a bit more success developing my skills), and over the years I’ve highlighted a lot of neat passages that show what a far-ranging narrator can do:
Here’s a bit from the third volume of Knausgaard, for instance, which mixes summary and rumination:
After the moving van had left and we got into the car, Mom, Dad, and I, and we drove down the hill and over the bridge, it struck me with a huge sense of relief that I would never be returning, that everything I saw I was seeing for the final time. That the houses and the places that disappeared behind me were also disappearing out of my life, for good. Little did I know then that every detail of this landscape, and every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch.
Or this passage from Carol Shield’s Small Ceremonies, which is not truly embodied, not truly in scene, but is more of a description of what it feels like to send out christmas cards.
This is a long, tedious task, and it irritates me to separate and put in order the constellations of our friends and to send them each these feeble scratched messages. But for the sake of the return, for the crash of creamy envelopes blazing with seals that will soon spill down upon us, I push on. For I want to hear from the O’Malleys who lived across the hall from us in our first apartment. I want to know if the Gorkys are still together and where the best man at our wedding, Kurt Weisman, has moved. Dr. Lawrence who supervised Martin’s graduate work and his wife Bettina always write us from Florida and so do the Grahams, the Lords, the Reillys, the Jensens. What matter that they were often dull and that we might have drifted apart eventually? What matter that they were sometimes stingy or overly frank or forgetful? They want to wish us a merry Christmas. They want to wish us all the best in the New Year. I can’t help but take the printed card literally; these are our friends; they love us. We love them.
Again, I wish that I was better at narrative summary. To work best, it can’t just stay in summary (although sometimes it does)–it should move delicately through concrete details and rumination and memory and back into summary. Oh well, I’ll get there someday!
True-feeling observations about human nature
This probably comprises the largest single category. It’s just a bunch of stuff, whether from novels or nonfiction or memoir or philosophy or essays, that feels very true! It’s a collection of that weird sort of fact that, when you hear it, you feel like you already knew this thing–even though you didn’t.
Rutherford sometimes wondered, running his long nervous fingers over his pale brow and through his prematurely gray hair, if there was any quality more respected by the timid remnants of an older New York society, even by the flattest-heeled and most velvet-gowned old maid, than naked aggression.
—Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss
Sometimes these observations come in the form of a type, where you instantly think: I know this person!
Everyone who knew Ovcharov proclaimed him a fine fellow. He earned this appellation through his deference to the ladies, amenability, tidiness, indefatigability, and his enthusiasm for all of society’s amusements, along with his customary readiness to expound on absolutely anything and equal readiness to listen to absolutely anything. But whatever society Ovcharov appeared in throughout his wandering life, he was never anything more than a fine fellow. Nowhere did he leave a strong impression; he was easily liked and easily forgotten. With women, in love and hate, he played only an incidental role; among serious people his presence brought on a slight sense of boredom; and through his entire life he had failed to attain a single devoted friend.
—City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya
Oftentimes these observations are aphoristic in style, like this one from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
The first moment of the public safety is devoted to gratitude and joy; but the second is diligently occupied by envy and calumny.
Sometimes writers say, “All your sentences should be beautiful.” This is absolute nonsense. Nobody can read and remember every sentence. Your story as a whole should be beautiful. There is no need to write in soundbytes. I’ve read some fantastic books that haven’t inspired me to highlight anything at all.
Nor do I think I’m a particularly highlighteable author. But when it comes to my two published books, my most popular highlights have been:
I’m not a sympathetic main character. My quirks are not lovable. I am not clumsy. I am not overwhelmed by life. I am not unlucky in love.
—Enter Title Here
The thing is, you can’t just be yourself if whenever people look at you they see something entirely different
—We Are Totally Normal
I immensely enjoyed doing all this database work to pull everything out and get it organized. I taught myself the basics of regex so I could extract the author and title data from the file names and add in the proper taxes. Makes me feel quite accomplished. I do sometimes think maybe I ought to learn computers and become a computer-doing-person. I’d have been good at it. I have the mind for it. But it’s fun enough as a little hobby.
Not sure what my next digital maintenance project will be. I do have lots of journal entries socked away in various places: might be worth extracting those and putting them all together in one spot. Have also been meaning to do some scanning projects.
Oh! I continue to highlight, of course. Right now I’m reading Es’kia Mphabele’s Down Second Avenue. He’s a mid-20th century Black South African writer, and this is his memoir of growing up and becoming a man.
My passion for reading grew stronger. The white family for whom my mother worked gave me old newspapers and periodicals. They merely shrugged their shoulders when my mother told them why I wanted the papers. More than that, they showed no interest. I was disappointed. I thought naïvely that if they were superior to me and my kind they should show some interest in a less fortunate creature who wanted to acquire something like the degree of literacy they enjoyed. Even if it were the kind of interest that might prompt one to retort: ‘Say, he reads English!’ Yes, I was very proud to be able to read English
I mean doesn’t that seem so true? Obviously people whose lives are based in a system of racial superiority will be unwilling to see any signs of competence amongst the Black people around them. It’s not that they’re consciously putting down or dismissing him–they simply won’t allow themselves to hear the fact that he might have a skill they could value.
Do people want dogs only for their looks? What are the motivations, values and behaviours of those who decide to go out and buy a dog today? These questions are part of a small but growing area of study. Although the research is still preliminary, available data suggest that physical appearance is the single most important factor driving dog-acquisition practices in the United States and throughout much of the West. And the look that we’re going for right now is ‘cute’.
— “Breeding Dogs To Be Cute And Anthropomorphic Is Animal Cruelty”
Mind is blown, is there a reason for wanting a dog besides their cuteness? Do some dogs do the dishes or something? Is there a dog that’ll pay rent? There’s a genre of article that seems to traffic in the weirdest sort of mock outrage. Of course people want dogs to be cute. Of course dogs are bred to be cute. Of course it’s not good for dogs’ health. If we cared about their health, there wouldn’t be any dog-breeding at all. Sheesh. But all that aside, it’s still a good article about the way cuteness works, how cuteness gets engineered into dogs, and the toll it takes on them (i.e. we may purposefully breed dogs with high needs precisely because being ‘helpless’ is cute)
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