The term ‘page-turner’ for certain books is well known. Most readers will be familiar with the idea and are likely to have had the experience of being gripped by a book, thanks to the plot, or more occasionally, its utterly mesmerising prose, propelling them on, page after page, relentlessly to the end.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the page-turner’s brooding sibling – what might be termed the chapter-jammer, perhaps, the leaf-stopper, the mind seizer, or more literally, the corner folder.
I have called these ‘the opposite of page-turners’ in the title of this post, but I don’t think that’s quite right. This is despite their effect in bringing reading to a sudden halt – in my case at least, when this happens, I tend to carry on afterwards. Sometimes, of course, page-turners can also be corner-folders. What I mean by this are those unexpected lines, or passages that jolt you abruptly off the narrative ride and force you to stop reading mid-flow.
When this happens to me, a bad-book habit is triggered and I turn down corners to mark the occasion. As a child of booksellers, I am very much aware just how triggering this can be for some readers. Many book lovers have a visceral hatred for the practise and those who indulge in it – the defacing, deforming and ruining of a perfectly good book. For many, folding a corner is the very worst thing you can do to a book – more extreme even than leaving it lying face-planted on the floor, when wandering off to attend to something else. More terrible still is committing this act wilfully against a defenceless hardback.
To the physical damage argument, I have no real defence and no shortage of bookmarks, so in a sense, no excuse either. However, to me, the very nature of a corner-folding worthy incident is that it happens in the flow of reading. There you are, eyes scanning the page, taking in the story or information, processing the emotion and ideas transmitted by that particular combination of words, when SMACK, the moment of brilliance, searing clarity or ‘bloody hell did she really write that?’ happens. Folding down a corner at this juncture, is less a conscious decision to spoil a good book, than an instinctual celebration of a wild spark of writer-reader connection. Stopping to carefully place the volume down, go off to find a bookmark, or pen to copy down what you’ve just read, involves too much deliberation. Let alone a mental consideration of the collapse in the book’s future resale value, or potential distress caused to a delicate future reader, who may one day pick up the same copy of the now scarred book.
Now I must qualify this concept, because not any old corner-fold counts. I’m referring only to those flashes of genius, or outrage, or wonder that grab and pinch your mental cheeks, like some strange print generated Magwitch, when you are reading for pleasure.
Reading with a purpose and marking a page in this way doesn’t count. Students, critics, or anyone perusing a text because they have to, may well fold quite a few page corners on the way. That’s different: in this mode, a reader is already actively looking out for quotes and signs, significance or resonances, relating to an essay, research or other work. So the surprise element is greatly reduced.
For me, this exception can also be applied to the reading of poetry. I’m not for a minute saying that poetry doesn’t possess such jaw-drop moments of beauty, wit, or gut-punch profundity, in thought, or execution – rather that, true to form, it comes stuffed full of them (or at least, tries to be). When engaged with poetry, I’m already in a heightened state of reading, or listening, with the strong expectation of being challenged, or moved.
True, pure, corner-folder moments, should sneak up unannounced, leaping unexpectedly out of the prose.
What a writer does to earn a corner fold may vary: it could be the utter, dazzling brilliance of a description, an acutely wise observation, a laugh out loud joke, maybe an emotion, or an idea captured perfectly, which chimes deeply with something you feel yourself.
Whatever the specifics, something about that particular group of words, must stand out – viscerally, emotionally, intellectually. When it happens as you read, it’s to be relished.
Recently, though, I have begun to find that later on, after I’ve finished reading a book, when returning to a particular point, the brilliance of the alchemy that once flared on the page, has faded.
I know for some people in recent months, with the covid pandemic and lockdowns and other news, reading has not been easy.
I seem to have gone the other way – as someone who since my early childhood, has always escaped difficult times by fleeing into books, I’ve been reading more than ever. As a result, I’ve been turning more page corners than ever.
Yet curiously, when flicking back through many of the books I’ve read in recent months or weeks, to find examples for this article, I kept drawing blanks. I’ve been riffling through pages, only to find, that I often can’t remember for the life of me, what it was exactly that once appealed so much.
In a few cases, I’d even gone to the trouble of sticking in a scrap of paper torn carefully from something else, to highlight some striking piece of writing, which, looking back, I can’t now quite fathom (there’s probably at least a whole other essay to be written on the mysteries of other people’s marked passages, stumbled across in 2ndhand books).
There’s a small melancholy to doing this, scanning the shores of past paragraphs, mudlarking after words that once made me feel happy, or pensive, tearful, angry or moved in some more ambiguous way, which I can’t, or don’t want to attempt to explain. What so struck me then? Why doesn’t it now?
Often the moment has gone. Perhaps, isolating a line, or phrase, within a novel, or work-of non-fiction, is to do it a disservice. The literary thrill of the moment of reading, only works fully in the context of reading. It cannot, and should not, shine out in the same way, if looked back on coldly, without the life of the rest of the book around it.
An isolated quote, or paragraph, in this sense becomes like a preserved biological sample – an object, diminished outside its natural habitat: a mere scrap of a bird that can no longer fly or sing.
That said, I was able to discern a happier pattern. The books I’d been reading recently that had left the strongest overall impression were also the ones with the most turned corners. These were the ones I’d press on friends and family, tweet about and keep for potential future re-reading.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop myself from folding the corner of books to record a passing moment of significance, but I’m going to try to remind myself to savour these more deeply as they happen.
I’d imagine all readers have from time to time felt compelled to mark a page, or two, but I’m beginning to think the real magic, is found in the lived moment as you read – not least because when you embark on a book, you never really know when that corner folding urge will strike.
It could get you on the first page, halfway through chapter three, or not until the very last sentence, thousands of pages deep. But whenever it does occur, that electric jolt from page to brain is to be treasured. And marked, obviously.
Links and References