I am on record, both in this magazine and in my local newspaper, as an enthusiastic defacer of books. Recently I had a new kind of marginal experience that I would like to share: the pleasure of joint, or (as they say in grad seminars) "dialogic" marginalia. The book was Dan Brown's Inferno. Like most writerers [sic], I am crazy about Dan Brown. Why does he write the way he does? Is he a sneaky genius? How is it possible that he was once in a writing seminar with David Foster Wallace? (One of my dreams is to write a hit Broadway musical about that seminar, in which Dan Brown strides around the stage wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches singing bombastic anthems about the great masterpieces of Europe while DFW sings introverted atonal fugues with mumbling sotto voce footnotes.) I purchased and read Inferno, which was inscrutable and interminable, and as I read I scribbled in its margins. When I finished, my friend David Rees, the artisanal pencil sharpener, asked if he could borrow it. He added his thoughts. It was fun to see someone else's words next to mine. I wrote in black pen, in cursive. David wrote in red pencil, in block letters. I was semi-serious. David swore and told a lot of jokes. Usually we agreed, but occasionally we disagreed. Here are some of the highlights. WARNING: There are probably Dan Brown spoilers here, but come on, seriously. Very early in Inferno, I realized that Dan Brown’s career-long fetish for ellipses had reached a whole new level. Basically, ellipses are the hero of the book. They make their first appearance on the dedication page. After a while I started trying to circle all of them, which became a meditative exercise. Sometimes I would miss one and David would catch it for me. We spent most of our time in the margins making fun of Dan Brown. We mocked his pacing, his dialogue, his dialect, his artless exposition, his anti-powers of description, his careless repetitions, his weak grasp of human behavior, his lust for fame, his characters’ gender stereotypes, his implausible plot points, and probably the worst “academic” lecture in the history of fiction. Along the way, we managed to isolate the keywords of the Dan Brown lexicon. Sometimes David added illustrations. Usually, David and I agreed. But sometimes we didn’t. Recently I passed the book to another friend, who will add her marginal notes, and then I will pass it to someone else, and then someone else, and on and on until eventually we have written more words in Dan Brown's book than Dan Brown himself. This seems like the only way to tame the monster at the heart of the Inferno.
The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It's the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible -- not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain. Here are some snapshots, month by month, of my marginalia from 2010. (Click each image for a larger view) January Point Omega by Don Delillo February Reality Hunger by David Shields Bleak House by Charles Dickens March The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver April Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson May The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis June Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson July Freedom by Jonathan Franzen August Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis September The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker October The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois November A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand December The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions