Saturday, February 12, 2011


A couple of days ago I had an exciting experience that happens perhaps only two or three times in a year: starting two books on the same day.  In this case, I began Aristotle's Topics and Ronald C. White's Lincoln's Greatest Speech.  Among other subjects related to winning arguments, Aristotle talks about the importance of knowing and spotting words that have more than one meaning, and it occurred to me that a couple of ideas I wanted to write about can each be signified by the same word: margins.

First, I was able to start both of these books earlier than planned because I had built up some margin or leeway in my reading schedule.  We've had more snow than usual for central Oklahoma in the last few weeks, and the University has already canceled classes on six separate days.  While I laughed about it yesterday with some other folks originally from more northern climes, I also took advantage of Oklahomans' skittishness by reading a lot on those snow days.

The word leeway comes from sailing.  (I hope I come across it when I read The Reverse of the Medal later this year.)  When moving between the wind and a shoreline, a captain must leave extra distance between ship and shore so the inevitable drift from the wind doesn't ground the vessel.  Since the side of a ship (or island) away from the wind is called the lee side, this extra distance is called leeway.  Plenty of surprises happen in the course of a year, most of which tend to take time away from reading and blow me closer to a shipwreck of the Reading Plan.  So accumulated leeway brings me the comfort of an experienced skipper.

Reopening the first volume of Aristotle from the Britannica set the other day reminded me of a second meaning of margins: the once-empty space at the edge of a page that I have written in.  Just yesterday, I was talking to some colleagues about the historical importance of a certain music-theory textbook because of its introduction of many now-standard features to help the student: the book has self-quizzes, handy lists of terms, clear charts, definitions set off from the rest of the text, and nice, wide margins.  Now, the margins provide a lot of white space that might merely help make the book less intimidating to freshmen, but I fondly hope that some of my students write notes in these margins.

I used to have some kind of misplaced respect for books that kept me from spoiling their purity, but I have replaced that sentiment with a more profound reverence that sometimes fills margins with scribbling.  (All this marginal writing will make it harder for my survivors to sell the books, but I pretend it will make things easier for the biographers!)  I've even been known to write in library books.  OK, it was a really confusing chart in a theory book in the music library, and it took me twenty minutes to figure out that it was labeled incorrectly.  So I wrote in the correction, and then signed and dated my act of good-hearted vandalism.

In the margins of Aristotle's books on logic and argumentation (the Organon), I see an eighth note as a sign of some reference to music, a message to myself to check a different page for a clearer explanation of some presently opaque topic (I guess neither explanation stuck. *sigh*), some clarification of letter designations in pages about syllogisms (such as "S = middle term"), some definitions captured probably only after a couple of days of confused reading, and -- most importantly -- diagrams I devised to help me understand Aristotle's three classes of syllogism.  When I reread a book, these marginal comments almost always help: sometimes they clarify a point that confuses me again on the second encounter, but sometimes they encourage me by offering an explanation for a passage that I no longer need an explanation for.

A third use of this multivalent word: this sentence marks the margin of today's post.

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