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Toward a Historical Phenomenology of Text Reception

A glance at the man’s photo on the cover draws me to thumb through my paperback Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. The spine’s glue, resin gone dirty golden, has long since released its grip. Pages come off singly or in sections, like wood cleft to slats. I spend quite awhile putting them back in sequence. More than once.

Every time I browse in Scott-Moncrieff’s Proust, the book opens by itself to one of the same pages, as if it held bookmarks; as a result, I have read several passages again and again over the years, while the bulk of the second volume remains mostly undiscovered and the first largely forgotten. So Yeats, I resolve, I’ll reread straight through.

This unremembered realm of colors of thought, fancy, perception, wryness! – I could as well be reading it for the first time ever, not just for the first time since college. Almost as surprising: what I underlined or wrote in the margins back then, more than 30 years ago.

Sometimes, and sometimes for pages on end, I underlined almost everything. So what effectively stand out are the sentences not underlined. Elsewhere, I seem to have marked the few fragments I understood, or thought I understood; neighboring passages now seem incomparably and obviously more alive. Then there are the passages underlined for reasons impervious to speculation.

Some of my notes in the margins are illegible, others incomprehensible despite legibility. What could I have meant by that? Those are some of the least embarrassing cases: other remarks show I judged authors by their adherence or opposition to my own opinions – in essence, tagging passages ‘you tell ’em!’ or ‘bullshit!’ Me: the arbiter, “proud, ’neath heated brow”, with “something to protect”; they: ammunition to be used or dodged in my hallucinated battle; grist ground to dust. The point isn’t whether I’ve since altered my positions.

Reading books bought second-hand, I’ve smirked at other people’s marginal notes before.

I’m tempted never to write notes or underline in a book again. As if all would be well, if I just leave no tracks I’ll later see from a distance.

Apologies to Robert Zimmerman for the afterthought of quoting his song and stealing its title. No apologies to the so-and-so school of philosophy for the subtitle.

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