Sunday, July 28, 2013

On Reading in Someone Else’s Traces

As an impecunious graduate student, and later as a threadbare lexicographer, I bought used copies of books  whenever possible.  Sometimes, these had been ill-used.  This happened especially in the case of volumes currently being used as textbooks.   Absurdly overpriced when new, these might come within the price-range of the elbow-patched pauper  after having passed through the hands of some subsidized undergraduates  who never really should have taken the course in the first place, and who now sold their texts, out of sight out of mind,  allowing us (as Leviticus prescribes) to survive on their leavings and gleanings.   These individuals would often underline in ink, or highlight in yellow (or, horresco referens, pink), sometimes every other sentence or paragraph:  and the color would bleed through the page, spuriously hemi-highlighting many a quite random passage.   To read through the work, I had to wade through the swamp of their mediocrity of mind.   Why couldn’t they at least highlight in pencil?

At present, I am reading a used paperback copy of Gordon Craig’s classic 1978 history of Germany.   And as the chapters go by, it becomes increasingly apparent that the previous owner had been a scholar, or scrupulous autodidact.   The passages marked are few, and always in faint pencil.  Moreover, these do not constitute “highlights” in any obvious sense;  rather, they illustrate some theme which that reader was pursuing in his mind, no longer apparent to this one.   His interests, whatever they might have been, do not match mine:  the phrase “civil service” merits, in his recension, a rare double-underline.  Moreover, there are occasional pithy marginal notes, but penciled-in so small that, even with a magnifier, I cannot decipher them -- in part because he uses personal abbreviations, in part because the thought is not predictable.  But one sigil thus used  I do understand, and it marks him as my Sinnesgenosse:  that little pyramid of three dots, which signifies “therefore” to a logician.


Someday, when I am gathered  to that great library in the sky,  my own annotated holdings will flood the market (if it still exists;  perhaps paper will be obsolete, and everyone on Kindle).   And the purchasers will puzzle over my own arcane jottings.   To aid later philologers, I shall mention here, that many of the abbreviatory symbols stem from lectures by Gleason or Quine:  the rounded curly-d for ‘boundary’, an acutely downhooked upright for ‘restricted to’ (whence ‘only, just’), a perpendicularly downhooked horizontal for ‘not’, a square for ‘necessarily’ (whence ‘must’), a diamond for ‘possibly, maybe’, a thick-shafted arrow (=>) for ‘causes, gives rise to’, an upside-down A for ‘all’, a backwards E for ‘there is, there exists’, an inverted point-triad for ‘since, because’, and so forth.  Or perhaps, like my own sad ashes, they will simply all be pulped.

[Note:  The more usual symbol for restriction of a function to a subset of a domain  is simply vertical-bar.  But that has many, many other meanings;  so I follow Gleason in adding a hook, which  quite appropriately  depicts the restrictor as a grappling-iron …
Likewise, there are many traditional symbols used for ‘not’, all of them grievously ambiguous.  I follow Quine in adding the disambiguating hook.]

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