For the offended

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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

"The stickiness will always remain."

     Never write in books.
     I certainly can't do it.  Underlining, highlighting, jotting notes in the margins, even folding over the corners of pages, it all seems immoral defacement, like spray-painting graffiti on a Roman temple or carving your name into an ancient oak tree. Galleys—those half-books sent out for review—yes, that's what they're for. They're disposable. Writing in them is like writing on a notepad. Text books too, since they by nature are meant to become dated and replaced by more up-to-date editions.
     We're speaking about physical books here, needless to say. While my wife consumes her continuous reading on a Kindle. But the habit never stuck with me. I'm sure it will, eventually.
     In the meantime. The challenge I have with paper books is, as a writer myself, is when I hit a phrase or thought that I might want to quote, or at least recall, at some later point. I've marked them with business cards, torn scraps, bits of string. Because if you don't, good luck remembering, never mind retrieving the tidbit that caught your interest.
     For the past two or three decades, I and everybody else has had an ideal solution to this problem, so can't let the death of Spencer Silver on May 8 go unremarked upon.
     Silver invented Post-it notes. Or rather, he discovered the not-that-sticky adhesive that led to them. A chemist for 3M, his given task was to concentrate on "creating a new superstrong adhesive." That's what he was supposed to do. What he ended up inventing was a superweak one. Which is a lesson right there. Because rather than sigh and abandon the failure, as most would, 3M set out to find a use for this new semi-sticky stuff, a process which, it is also important to note, took years. During that quest, Silver held seminars at 3M, brainstorming with coworkers about what purpose his not-at-all-super adhesive could have. One was attended by colleague Art Fry, who sang in the choir in a Presbyterian church, and knew how annoying it was when he opened his hymnal and the bits of paper marking his various cues and places would flutter to the floor. In 1974, he had his ah-ha moment.
     More years passed. It wasn't until 1980, a dozen years after Silver found the weak adhesive that didn't lose its gripping power when peeled off a surface, and didn't damage it, that 3M introduced Post-it Notes.
     And even then, they weren't an immediate hit. People had to be taught how to use them. 3M gave away a lot of freebies until people suddenly realized they are for, well, everything. I put one atop a clip I was sending this morning. No need for a paperclip, and nothing encourages brevity like writing on a space 2 x 1.5 inches.
     The ideal size. For me, the original 3 x 3 pads are too big—I'd end up tearing the sheets, to make each last longer. I scatter those tiny pads in every desk drawer, night table, end table and briefcase. I'll peel off 10 and use that thin chunk as a bookmark, peeling off sheets as I encounter the noteworthy, leaving them behind like bread crumbs, marking my way through the book. It's a great thing. Thank you, Spencer Silver. 
You can read the New York Times obit of him here.
    Although ... looking at the photo I chose to illustrate this, my well-thumbed copy of James Boswell's "Life of Johnson," I must point out an irony that would otherwise not be apparent. I prefer this edition of the great biography above all others because it alone, as far as I know, contains marginal notes by Johnson's friend, landlady, and, perhaps, sadomasochistic gal pal Hester Thrale Piozzi. The comments that she scribbled in her copy of Boswell's book, now at the Houghton Library at Harvard (and, from a different edition, in a private collection). My copy is a three-volume set published by The Heritage Press in 1963, and I recommend anyone tackling Boswell to seek it out, as Piozzi adds to the fun. She exclaims, "It is true, tho!" She denies. "Which Johnson never would have done." She elaborates, she ponders, she queries, and takes continual potshots at "Bozzy," whom she obviously despises. It's like having a comments section on a late 18th century work. So amend to my original edict: Never write in books. Unless you intimately know the subject at hand. Then go for it, if only for posterity's sake.


  1. And the notes are a shot at immortality -- more than 200 years after her death, Mrs. Thrale lives on. Hardly likely that any one of us electronic kibitzers will outlast the latest ipad, much less be taken seriously once we and our Johnsons are defunct.


    1. Who knows? Maybe someday somebody will decide that this humble space is worthy of attention. Stranger things have occurred.

  2. I have cut out and saved your columns from the Sun-Times, underlined your twists of language and insightful commentary. Perhaps, I should just take a phone photo instead. Nope. The smell of a newspaper and the ink stains are an addiction. Every newspaper has a distinct perfume. Be it the ink or the paper, there is an appeal to the senses that a sterile phone lacks. The same for hardcovers and paperbacks. Keep your Kindles. Give me papyrus any day.

  3. I thought writing "tho" was a trendy Twitter thing, which I like. Uh, she was way ahead of her time as a commenter.

    I don't write in books. I don't take notes. I've never bought a Post-it. I see a memorable line in a book and think "that's very good, I should remember that," perhaps read it again and then have forgotten it by the time I turn the page, alas. And that's one of the countless differences between me and our intrepid host, as well as our resident quote-compiler, Tom E.

    I've had friends. I've had landladies. Oddly, none evolved into sadomasochistic gal pals. D'oh!

  4. Taking a short course at Oxford some years ago my instructor was a wonderfully erudite old lady who once had C. S. Lewis for a tutor. She revealed that, while examining illustrated manuscripts from Medieval times at the Bodleian, she came across a note inscribed in Latin by and out of sorts monk that said "Fuck the Abbot."



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