Modify an Old Book

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

In Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, the title character is an unidentified man whose only link to his past is an old book he used as a notebook / commonplace book:

She picks up the notebook that lies on the small table beside his bed. It is the book he brought with him through the fire—a copy of The Histories by Herodotus that he has added to, cutting and gluing in pages from other books or writing in his own observations—so they are all cradled within the text of Herodotus. (p. 16)

And in his commonplace book, his 1890 edition of Herodotus’ Histories, are other fragments—maps, diary entries, writings in many languages, paragraphs cut out of other books. All that is missing is his own name. (p. 96)

This month’s exercise is to use the English patient’s book as inspiration.

Step One: Find an old book to repurpose. I suggest starting with a used book that already has some scuffs and scrapes so it doesn’t feel too precious to modify.

If you don’t want to use a book you already own, look for a suitable book at a used bookstore (check the discount bin out front) or charity book sale. Tip: library book sales often sell hardcover books for $1 or less.

While you can start with any book, a copy of a favorite novel, a nonfiction book whose subject is interesting to you, or one with aesthetic appeal (but perhaps less-than-interesting content) are good options.

Step Two: Modify your book! You can play with the existing text or treat it more like a blank journal.

Some suggestions:

  • create found poetry using the existing text
  • paste in photos, clippings, tickets, etc.
  • doodle or draw
  • add patterns or color
  • write notes in the margins
  • journal between the lines
  • fill in blank pages
  • write an alternate ending or add a “missing” chapter
  • add a character
  • modify illustrations/photographs
  • dry leaves or flowers between the pages

Step Three: Continue until your book feels finished. Use your book as a source of inspiration for your writing—both during the process of creating it and afterward.

[Page numbers from the 1992 Vintage edition.]

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