Sunday, February 24, 2013

Memory gift from a stranger

I have received many undeserved gifts from the Rotterdam book market but one of the most important I received from Mr. J.H. van Roijen, an ambassador working and reading in 1956. 
I bought the book The outsider by Colin Wilson because of the tiny calendar that I found inside. I'm fascinated by these personal details, notes, postcards, newspaper cuttings and other ephemera. I try to gauge the personality and interests of the previous owners. It is an exercise in nostalgia and melancholy.

The past is a strange land. In 1956 I could never have joined the social circles where someone was an ambassador who could spend 500 guilders on a membership of the Red Cross. But now I have his book in my hands with his most intimate notes.
The content does not interest me very much. I admire Colin Wilson for his ability to write about almost anything, but this existentialist book and its bleak view of life does not resonate with me. But there is something very ingenious written on one of the first pages of the book. A personal index!
The numbers are, of course, pointers to page numbers. And on the pages themselves the relevant paragraphs are underlined. From this list I conclude that the owner of the book had both a pessimistic view of life - he underlines many very tragic texts - but was also aware of the possibility of experiencing the sublime - he underlines many texts about escaping the limits of human perception.(Also note how the difference in writing materials proves that this index was not written in one sitting! Just like Alexander Marshack proves in his research of paleolithic notations.)
There is no meaning in life. It just "is" - a senseless, devil ridden chaos. The intelligence that makes man only makes him more brutal than any beast.
The outside world is is infinite and eternal, and would appear so to everyone if everyone could see things without the grime on their windows of perception. 
This is a classic technique, of course, but I had never thought of it. I was using sticky notes to mark interesting paragraphs and useful quotes. This lead to nice and colourful books, but things would get sticky and complicated. And glue damages books in the long run so pencil is a much better solution. (Never use a pen, this makes secondhand book dealers cry.)
And later I was reminded of the habit of Michel de Montaigne who made notes and summaries in his books to compensate for his weak memory:
A little to aid the weakness of my memory (so extreme that it has happened to me more than once, to take books again into my hand as new and unseen, that I had carefully read over a few years before, and scribbled with my notes) I have adopted a custom of late, to note at the end of every book (that is, of those I never intend to read again) the time when I made an end on't, and the judgment I had made of it, to the end that this might, at least, represent to me the character and general idea I had conceived of the author in reading it; and I will here transcribe some of those annotations.
Below you see some of my own notes. If you own these books you can see which parts made the biggest impression on me. Those are also the parts that I might write about on this blog.

The past ...
Alexander Marshack -
Montaigne Essays:
Write Simple Notes in Your Media to Remind You of Your Opinion
On forgetfulness -
London Orbital - great book -
SCARP - equally great book -

1 comment:

  1. Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them. (Max Ernst)