My wife Elizabeth and I were at Whole Foods on the Upper West Side for some good wholesome food shopping. On our way out, a collection of books near the exit caught my eye. There was a sign inviting people to take and leave books. Every so often someone would come by and take the books to a charitable organization whose name I have already forgotten because I was so focused on the fact that there were a lot of books being given away.

I sifted through the books and found quite a few that did not interest me. I saw a copy of a play by Eugene Ionesco but I knew that I had another copy at my mother’s house and did not want to have a second copy when someone out there could get their first. Right next to it was a book with three plays by August Strindberg. “Jackpot,” I thought.

The first time I heard the name August Strindberg was when I was watching the film Manhattan — the film happens to be my favorite and has been for a long time. There is a scene during which Woody Allen’s character says, “When it comes to relationships with women, I’m the winner of the August Strindberg award.” I’m honestly still not sure what he means by that but I hope to get some idea by reading these plays.

I took out the book when we were on the E train going from Manhattan to Queens and started flipping through the pages. As I started looking briefly at random pages, I would come upon sections where the previous owner of the book had highlighted an entire passage, or underlined a couple of sentence. I felt a mix of disappointment and and intrigue.

I have never read these plays before, so it would have been better for me to read them without any sort of vague commentary on them. I can’t help but think that every time I come across a sentence or paragraph that is marked by highlighter or underlining, I am going to focus more on that particular section of the scene and try to figure out what it was about that section that caused the previous owner to mark it such.

Is it a key statement in the play? Does it display some kind of character flaw in the character speaking? Is the paragraph one of the more important ones in the play? What if the previous owner just used highlighter on phrases and paragraphs that he or she found to be amusing? Even more unlikely, what if the person just underlined random sentences and used highlighter for no reason other than to mess with the head of the person that would inevitably find the book?

I find this last notion to be the least likely because only two of the plays have highlighting and underlining. Perhaps I should start by reading the unaltered play and then move on to the altered ones? Or should it really matter how another person took the trouble to highlight and underline the play if I can make a conscious effort to ignore it?


  1. I really love this article, Gordon!

    Read the plays with the highlighting and the margin commentary — it will make your reading experience richer.

    I teach my students that books are tools and your friends and they are to be sanctified, shared and never re-sold. I urge them to mark up their books, to circle things that excite them and to highlight anything they want to try to remember.

    Here’s a clue about Strindberg and the women in his plays: Haunted by ghosts seeking revenge from the past.

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