Meditation on a Marker

By Christina Eng '91 / July / August 2005
April 28th, 2007

I sat in the kitchen that morning perplexed, wondering where it could be. I’d looked on the nightstand in my bedroom, near the sink in the bathroom, around the recliner in the living room. It had simply disappeared. 

Who would have guessed losing something so ordinary could be so traumatic? But it was. Who would have thought misplacing something so common could throw me into such despair? But it did. Outside, the clouds hung heavy and heartless.

When one of my housemates came down for breakfast, I broke the news. “I’ve lost my purple highlighter,” I said. “I can’t find it anywhere.” I wanted to finish the book I had started several days earlier, I explained, but now I couldn’t, not without the highlighter. My weekend would be ruined.

She reassured me that the marker would show up eventually and suggested I use the yellow one on the counter until then. I declined. “I started the book with purple,” I explained. She suggested we buy a new highlighter later, on our way home from the movies. I declined again. Why spend money when a perfectly good marker was somewhere in the house? 

I’d considered finishing the book without a marker at all, I said, but I couldn’t. What would be the point? I needed to mark passages I liked when I came upon them on the page; I’d developed the habit years ago. 

She shrugged, sipped her coffee, and scanned the newspaper headlines. I shuffled upstairs to ask others in the house. Had anybody seen my purple marker? Like a child dejected by the loss of a pet rock or a toy truck, I went in search of help, sympathy, a kind word or two, condolences.

I wasn’t always this particular about reading. As a child, I read casually without marking a thing. I spent hours in the library and checked out bags of books. Between the covers, I met characters such as Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby. Since the books weren’t mine to keep, I never wrote in them.

In high school, our English teacher, Mr. Karsten, encouraged us to read critically. Since we weren’t allowed to mark the books we used, we took notes and cited page numbers. We scribbled vocabulary words. We learned to interact with the text, to form opinions, to engage in dialogue.

In college, I discovered highlighters. Sunny. Yellow. Eye-catching. I saw them in libraries and bookstores. Finance and engineering students used the pens to mark statistics and formulas. Highlighting would help them study for exams. 

It also helped literature majors like me. Since the books I read then were generally mine to keep, I used my markers liberally. Highlighting meant I’d finished the reading for the week. It proved I wasn’t bluffing my way through seminars. I said what I thought was important and supported my argument with the appropriate text. 

Like a graffiti artist with a can of spray paint, I tagged my books. Highlighting meant I’d been there.

I highlighted passages in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior. I highlighted images by John Keats that moved me and fragments from Charles Bukowski that befuddled me. I highlighted dialogue in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Clean, confident strokes across the page thrilled me, one line after another.

In the margins, I wrote words like “fascinating,” “foreshadow,” and “cool,” comments that mattered only to me. With my highlighters and pens, I initiated conversations with novelists, poets, and playwrights. Mr. Karsten would have been proud.

After graduation, I landed a job at a newspaper, covering “the literary life,” as we called it. I could write about books, the features editor said, and let others know what was worthwhile. I could profile authors and ask them about inspiration. I could do this on the company dollar.

Before long, packages from publishers arrived in the mail. Sometimes they were small, with a couple of children’s books. Other times they were large. Sometimes they contained self-help or spiritual books I hadn’t asked for. Other times they held poetry or short-story collections I’d requested.

It always felt like Christmas in the office. Each day my colleagues and I were presented with more books than we could handle. For the bibliophiles among us, it was bliss.

Before long, I also discovered the supply cabinets. I found  classic yellow highlighters. Neon pink ones. Orange and green. Blue and purple. Coins and jewels could not have sparkled more brilliantly.  The expanded palette emboldened me.

Years later, when I left the newspaper, I thought about what I would miss: my colleagues’ humor and commitment, the newsroom energy. Most  of all, I’d miss the books and the highlighters.

Reading without highlighting had become unthinkable. They were inextricably linked. I read; I wrote. It was a force of habit. Yes, I was compulsive, but this was an addiction I’d long since accepted. I had rules: I highlighted only books I knew I would keep. I color-coordinated, using an orange highlighter in a book about modern art, for instance, or green in a book about nature.

Over time, I discovered pens with thin tips and thick tips, ones that were micro-chiseled and others that were wedge-shaped. I discovered double-ended highlighters—fine-point on one end and medium-point on the other. 

I imagine an exchange that might occur over dinner sometime, a conversation about relationships. One friend would say she wanted somebody with a great smile. Another might say she wanted someone sweet. Another would say she wanted somebody smart.

When my turn came, I would take a sip of wine, pause, and tell them I wanted someone who read. Not just newspapers and magazines, but fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, too. Someone who would appreciate the books I’d collected since college and help me build shelves for them. I could date only guys who were literate. I might even marry, in a heartbeat, the man who showed up at my door with a handful of highlighters.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
July / August 2005