Review: If Not, Winter

Hashtag Thursday thoughts, transcribed into late-Friday sustenance:

  • Recently finish reading If Not, Winter by Sappho (further praiselavishing down below)*
  • Be doubly bemused, as the least tech-literate millennial you’ll ever meet, at two new features of my constant Internet haunts: (1) That the Kindle Highlights page has moved to a new, mostly more intuitive layout.
  • (2)That now, after reading a book, Goodreads asks me if I want to share these highlights, start a discussion.
  • Ignore the latter as spam, as another way my (mostly opt-in) automation and integration processes are backfiring on me and no, Goodreads, only notify me when a real person is interacting!
  • Reconsider: I actually use Kindle Highlights… a lot.

While not necessarily the definitive mark of a book’s quality, as a reader with ADD, it’s fascinating to go back to a book, months or years later, and check its highlights (digital or otherwise) and see what jumped out to me at that point. Particularly for Kindle’s features, it tells you how many highlights a particular title has. And, again, this isn’t a mark of quality–I had to mark up a lot of Hemingway and James Fenimore Cooper and Systems Theory books for college, and they’re not on my top shelves.

Side-note: one reason I do try to keep my reading localized on one platform is to make things easier for me memory-wise, highlight-wise, and because I generally rent before buying. I’m a habitual window-shopper and thrive on my library. The fact that my Kindle notes stay when I purchase a digital copy is a great feature. And to me, the mark of a favorite title is getting that physical copy, to earn the privilege of tactile handling and further marking.

But I have nonfiction and writing books with dozens of passages I want to keep for later. Entire neighborhoods of words I knew I’d forget, or decided I’m not allowed to. The first time I read Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull, I didn’t want to know more than I needed to, about apartheid and South Africa and the TRC. At the end of the course, I had over 30 highlights. The same goes for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. 

If I were to use this metric to define quality, the big hitters would be Oliver Sach’s Musicophilia and Cynthia Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, closing out their highlight counts with upwards of 60-70 passages. And both phenomenal books! I do go back to those collections of notes, regularly. Are they my favorites, though? Not really. I keep the information at a remove, ready for dissection. Where do I want to return? What stories and knowledge, in the moment, do I want to keep?

More to the point–compare these to novels. Books I’ll consume by the dozen every year, (short fiction, by the many hundreds): Typically speculative, with fully formed worlds, characters, histories, a plot baked in, prose that sings; and often (one hopes) these stories will either or speak to me, or at least entertain, or teach me something. But if you were to analyze them via highlights, it’s really just those passages that make me stop and go, “Ha, that’s neat.”

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Plenty of fiction I’ve loved gets marked up out of joy and awe at so many talented authors. It’s only–the book that can do both is such a rare beast. Which brings me back to If Not, Winter.

Sappho’s poetry reminded me of that sensation. Starting a book uncertainly, unable to highlight or (like some animal) fold or write in the margins); I can only take phone pictures, I can only scribble the parts that speak to me. Until I wonder how many pictures and scribbles I have of this wonderful, haunting book of fragmented poetry, made not just from her voice, but of brackets and white space and aching emptiness I want to know more, I want to see within the bracketed white space. I want to meet this author.

I want to highlight across the distances, but can’t. In this age of information from places vast, infinite, instant, these missing pieces will always never be there. Anne Carson confirms it and I remain bewildered.

So I get to that point most serial borrowers will: realizing I’m just gonna buy this book, forever digesting that no amount of digital convenience or notes or ebook renewals can enrich the reading experience, can teach me anything  beyond this fragmentary perfection.

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