This has happened before. I’m rereading the book White Noise by Don DeLillo, a copy I bought used that someone wrote in. That someone was a woman, you can tell by her lettering. Joyful and young, it’s as yet untouched by the cruelness of life, the sorrow of this world, the trembling that comes from years of hard drinking. In fact her handwriting is no longer hers, it’s mine: a composite of all the women who’ve ever written to me combined into one. All my hopes for love hidden in the twists of her words, the swoops and flourishes. My nostalgia for human touch, the memory of handmade print. What makes us real.
I am reading the book at the same time as she: no, I am following her. I’m reading her reading him. She hasn’t signed her name in the book but there’s a receipt in the middle with the name of the store where she got it, the date. Tuesday 30 March 1999. Mother Kali’s Books, Eugene, OR. Register no. 2. At the bottom of the receipt she’s written Friday 5 pm. What could that mean? A date with the cashier? Did she need it for a class? And why did she sell it back? I am almost more interested in what she has to say than the author, though I love the book. Is her professor spoon-feeding her notes or is she coming up with them on her own?
Books are one of the few things we can touch and handle in an intimate way and then share with strangers when we’re done. Unlike a used car or a painting in a thrift store or an old chest of drawers, with a book it’s different, someone has held it in their lap, carried it with them on the bus, fallen asleep with it on the couch. These physical things are charged with a human resonance digital spaces lack. There, we come and go like ghosts passing by unseen, footprints in the snow. Books with handwritten notes are evidence we were here.
He is trying to say something about popular culture in this scene. It is about the most photographed barn in America but when you pull off the road there’s no barn, just people selling postcards, taking pictures of a barn that’s not even there. Here there is some commentary on consumerism I think. People follow what others do, the crowd, however absurd.
She has written in the white space at the bottom of the page and it is in this moment I first see her through the swoops of her pencil, her thoughts. She is reading it at the same time as me and here is what she thinks. I am moved to write about it, to put my book down. I reach for the phone and stab out words with my thumbs, a new kind of typewriter just two inches wide. No one uses pencils anymore.
The next chapter goes untouched until the very end, and I refrain from reading what she’s said until I get there. She’s underlined the closing text with a bold, definitive stroke beneath which it reads Identity. Her lettering is a blend of print and cursive, the Ts mirror each other like twins.
I was just having lunch when I saw it from across the room, the book, and wanting something new to read I pulled it out. The spine is coming undone and the cover has a crease with a stain at 10 o’clock, a gold tacky substance from a glitter pen that’s coarse and pleasing to the touch like sand. And there at the bottom is the author’s photograph in black and white looking stern, unsmiling, a chin like Kirk Douglas. But at a different angle it could be a grin, a male Mona Lisa. I feel like I know this man from his book.
By the end of the sixth chapter she has stopped making notes and I wonder if she’s tuned out, if I am alone in all this. Part of me wants to scan ahead for her notes but another part wants to not disrupt the order of things. It is a strange book, to read it cold might leave you feeling estranged, put off. It is a kind of comedy wholly anchored in itself like a burl on a tree, a queer-looking knot.
By the eighth chapter she is back, but using a highlighter now. The ink is so old it’s made the words glow with a gold you can’t ignore. What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation. She’s forced me to pause and consider this.
After some time and no further annotations I come to the first passage I feel I should mark, the first scene in the grocery store. It reads,
There were six kinds of apples, there were exotic melons in several pastels. Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright. People tore filmy bags off racks and tried to figure out which end opened. I realized the place was awash in noise. The timeless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.
This page I fold carefully at the bottom in my signature way of marking things. The story was heating up and my reader friend sensed it too. She’d shifted from notes to highlighting to underlining to a new system, check marks in purple ink. The check marks denoted something that drew me in, a Morse code. But it also made me wonder if more than one person was now on the line. And soon a new element appeared, handwritten stars. Wild arrows, exclamation points! One could get distracted by all this but I tried to embrace it. Perhaps out of loneliness, from being cut off from the rest of the world for so long.
It is in our nature to pass things between us, to share and reuse. And we’re connected beyond things in ways we’ll never know, through shared places and experiences. Sometimes I’ll learn a friend was at the same concert as me well before we knew one another. We pass through the same towns and places sharing shopping carts and seats in the theater, friends of friends, surprise relatives.
DeLillo has a lot to say in this book about American culture, consumerism, TV, the media, the American family. And it’s fractured and distorted by our fascination with screens, our need to be entertained, to gorge ourselves on it, our limitless choice. He suggests we’re all afraid of death and the only way we can overcome that fear is by losing ourselves in crowds. That by joining a crowd we shield ourselves from death, we become anonymous there. Through our reliance on TV and entertainment we’ve lost the ability to think for ourselves, we think in crowds based on what we’re told, we believe anything. Though published in 1985 it resonates on a different level today.
I would like to find the woman who owned this book and talk to her. I would like to track her down on the street and say hey, I have this book you read. What did you think?
I would like for her to not be anonymous or made up, for her to be known, to be real. I would like to believe I am the same. That we can stand out from the crowd and know for ourselves what’s real by using our senses, what we know by feel.