We were here

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.

Categories: identity, writing

Tags: , ,

30 replies

  1. This is wonderful and glorious. A very well done post.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Sigh. If you found her, she’d think you creepy. I really enjoyed this, We don’t have much of an opportunity to buy used books here, just at the library’s annual sale. I doubt I’d find an annotated book there. The sorting volunteers would probably flag it as garbage.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s official, the break has done you good. This is next level stuff here.

    Actually, it reminds me of Paul Auster, of the kind of thing he’d write a whole novel about. Also reminds me of the Paul Auster tribute of yours from way back.

    I read White Noise in college, for an English class on mass media (along with A Fan’s Notes, Day of the Locust, and the Medium is the Message, among others). I don’t remember much about it except that it had several passages of fantastic dialogue, and an airborn toxic event. Still have that copy on the shelf. I rarely if ever mark up my books, but I just pulled that one out and saw that it has the passages marked that my professor highlighted in class. I’d learned he liked to see us return to them in the papers we wrote. I probably still have that paper on a floppy disk somewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s so cool and I’m tickled by your comment, thank you. You’re lucky you were able to study this in college! I would have loved that. In fact I’m looking forward to the foreword so to speak, the criticism in the first part of this here Viking edition. I’ve only read two other pieces by him, should probably do Underworld. One was terribly bizarre, the other his 9/11 take which was more accessible, quite interesting. I’m happy too you made that Paul Auster ref again and we have that lineage between us so to speak. I went back to that post late last year as part of a pledge to “read everything I’d written starting in 2012.” I stalled out in the summer of 2016 now. Glad to be back in the stinking present I must say, and with you! Thanks for reading and for your ongoing encouragement and participation here. We should talk current TV soon, too. Be well!


    • Also I think there was a band that named itself The Airborne Toxic Event. He had to have been chuffed when he heard about that. 😎


  4. Enjoyed this tremendously … keep thinking of the many books I have underlined/written in so extensively that ultimately they go into recycle rather than selling them back. Never occurred to me the additions might be of interest to a subsequent reader!
    Sooo, the big question: did you also annotate this book? If someone picks it up10 years from now, will they witness a conversation of sorts?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! My contribution to the annotation is a crude stain on the cover from a gold glitter pen. That and some mysterious, unexplained dog ears in the bottom corners of the pages I liked most. It’s kind of a shit show as I’m now realizing there were in fact multiple people annotating. The woman’s are the most interesting and personable. The rest inexplicable wavy underlining which I often don’t agree with. The point to emphasize those lines that is. Happy you enjoyed it Jazz and thanks for letting me know!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a fascinating read.
    ~ ~ ~
    Young DD believes that books are sacred, not to be scarred. When he later annotates Eros and Civilization by Herbert Marcuse and tries out a ‘dog ear’ it is a scary but joyously sensual rebellion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha ha! Funny David. Yes I know of people who feel that way, that they’re sacred. That’s awesome, I’m close to feeling that way too. Have been marking up cook books though for years now and like that custom, of dating things too (especially for holiday meals). Sigh. Nostalgia…thanks for reading and for sharing buddy.


  6. I, too, appreciate the delight of handmade text, of the feel of pen (or pencil) on paper!

    Your post made me think of a weird project: taking notes in a book then deliberately sharing it. It seems like a fascinating way to communicate both in-the-moment, and across time. Something you can’t do with an e-book, no?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like that idea Carl! Yeah I wonder if it’s a relic of the past, or will be, this phenomenon of “legacy annotations.” Heck it was a fun story idea to dabble in, fun seeing how far I could take it. And then weird, with the WordPress algorithm that links a post to similar ones that precede it I realized I’d done two different takes on this idea in previous years. Kind of cool. Great book too, White Noise! He has so much fun with the writing that fun is contagious. Good contagious 😷 thanks for reading buddy!


  7. An engrossing trip along the book. I walked along your imagination lane. Enjoyed it a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Love this. And not only because I love White Noise (and other DeLillo books …). The idea of another reader’s presence in a book you’re reading has always been fascinating. It’s like a subtext to the story.

    Have you read or heard of the “novel” called S. — by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst? It’s full of marginalia and inserts so that the real story isn’t in the printed text but in all these add-ins. Pretty cool.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I read Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller this summer. A wife writes letters to her husband and secretly leaves them behind inside the thousands of books he has collected, said books being collected specifically for the marginalia they contain. A moody sort of a book but I liked it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My wife acted in a play called Breathing Lessons, funny—similar name. Cool premise, that! Moody sorts of books. Can you imagine? A mood for a day! Moody blues! That’s cool, happy to see you here again and glad for that. Been like 9 years now I think. Can you imagine?

      Liked by 1 person

  10. The scribbles left by other readers are one of the reasons I value used books so much–and the other surprises too, like an old postcard, or, in a copy of Catch-22, a Korean 1000-won note, which made me wonder if the previous owner had traveled there. The surprising connections you mentioned also reminded me of the poet Paul Eluard and the painter Max Ernst who, after World War I, became close friends, and who both remarked on the strange coincidence that, during the war, before they met, they’d only been a few hundred feet apart and shooting at each other.
    And also Billy Collins’s poem “Marginalia”, which I discovered in a tossed-aside copy of Poetry magazine, and which grabbed me with these lines:
    “I remember once looking up from my reading,
    my thumb as a bookmark,
    trying to imagine what the person must look like
    who wrote ‘Don’t be a ninny’
    alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson“.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now that is one epic comment Christopher. Thank you…I had a really satisfying run with Billy Collins last year that lasted most of the summer I think. The best kind of “lazing away the day” afternoon hammock reading. I don’t remember the one from Marginalia but man that sounds like him, don’t be a ninny. Good advice, and I often need reminded of that! Thank you for this and that’s super cool about Catch-22 also. I had a “thing” about a 10–pound note one time. I’d gone through all my step-dad’s most treasured belongings, which I’d inherited. One was a birthday card from his estranged dad that had this note in it. I imagined spending the note on a couple pints in England when we went there, and trying to find his home town. Didn’t work out that way but was fun to imagine, and I still have note. Physical things are charged somehow with a currency we imagine. Can’t be replicated like that digitally. Too many bots maybe 🤔

      Liked by 1 person


  1. We were here — Bill Pearse – Kastonedigital

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