Writing in Books

Multiple friends of mine abhor writing in books. I, however, love it. I will admit it is an art few people master, but it is a pleasure coming across a second-hand book (or *gasp* library book) where one or more readers have left a little of themselves in the margins. Perhaps an underlined phrase every couple pages. Or a well-placed word or two in the margins. Nothing overwhelming. Nothing that would disrupt your reading unless you wish it to. But if you would allow it, here is the communion of readers. More than once a careful note in the margins has granted me deeper understanding of the text in question. Sometimes I merely come across a date, or a name, or some remembrance of a loved one. Here is shared a glimpse into the life of a fellow reader – another person some other place, some other time, who picked up the same book you hold in your hands.

So pick up that pen, and condense that gem of a profound thought into a handful of words on a margin – that posterity might profit.

P.S. Sometimes, of course, I merely jot notes to help myself remember. I used to be wary of writing in Bibles (those sacred objects!) But now I have a 2-dollar Bible for the very purpose, and I can’t help wonder why I had never bothered to do this. It’s much more fun this way.

While I write in books regularly, only my Bible suffers to this severity.

While I write in books regularly, only my Bible suffers to this severity.

little things that make me happy – At Bus Stops

I waited at bus stop A for an unspecified amount of time, spent 20 minutes on the lovely vehicle, alighted, proceeded to bus stop B, waited again for unspecified amount of time, spent a good half hour on second lovely vehicle, again alighted, brisk-walked for 7 minutes in -1’F weather, arrived at church where I volunteer, and spent the rest of the morning thawing.

In the afternoon I made my way into the balmy 3’F weather and went through the entire process backwards. By some strange chain of events, both “unspecified amounts of time” in the pm were less than 3 minutes. My fingers barely cooled. I was pleased.

the Lord saith

honey and milk are aflow in the land

beneath the lushness of olives I stand

and sing the provision of God’s ready hand

and the Lord saith, I AM.


when nights they are hot and they’re stale and they’re old

but tears on my cheeks like the stars are so cold

and bitter as lead is the taste of my woe

yet the Lord saith, I AM.


cast from my comfort the wild to roam

seeking His strength but dry to the bone

waiting and knowing He’ll yet call me home

still the Lord saith, I AM. 


And the Lord WAS, and the Lord IS, and the Lord IS TO COME. ~Revelation 4:8


That my God’s name is I AM does not cease to awe me. He IS – all that is good, that is true, that is beautiful. No matter what my own circumstances are, whether I am spiritually thriving, or whether I am wretched and lost and generally messed up, God is still God. Even in the darkest nights where I cast Him aside, God is still infinitely good and very much present – as His name promises, and I take comfort in that. 

Psalm 23, paraphrased

Psalm 23:1  The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 

[2-3] It was 3:00 in the afternoon, the quietest hour of the day. Most people were still at work, while those with night shifts were sensibly in bed. All that penetrated the grungy kitchen window were faint beams of sunlight and the indistinct chatter of children being dropped off by the school bus.

I leaned back in my folding chair at the breakfast table and closed my eyes. Why God? I asked.

The faucet dripped. Dripped. Dripped.

A long sigh, and just for a moment I allowed my mind to empty of thoughts. No worries. No anger. Just my lonely quiet.

I AM, He said, a voice soft as the afternoon sunshine.

[4] Half an hour short of midnight found me walking the two blocks to the bar where I worked. The forgotten streetlights cut deep shadows. I slipped through a narrow alley, its entry guarded by a broken figure lost somewhere in the needle’s dream. The walls on both sides of the alley were dark with age and other things I didn’t care to think about. Behind a dumpster a man and woman were at it. I averted my eyes, only to find myself looking into the leering gaze of a drunken man. He grinned, and wavered toward me on unsteady feet. Our father who art in heaven, I mouthed to myself, hollowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…

Bob greeted me as I entered the bar. “Hey kid,” he grinned, lacking teeth but not sincerity. He was a regular, homeless, living on the small check his son in Chicago sends him monthly. It was too small to feed him, clothe him, or house him, but it was just enough to drink himself slowly to death. I mustered a smile for Bob.

[5] 6:00 A.M. My shift ended, and I walked a block to the small patch of green that passed for a park. I settled on a bench facing the street to watch the world go by, kicking the heels off my tired feet. I sipped coffee from a flimsy paper cup as nightshifters dragged their weary carcasses home and cab drivers woke up to their first cup of joe.

I started on my sandwich about the same time the rain did. I liked rain. It was only a light mist, crowning my hair with moist. But now my sandwich was damp – though the ham was still good, and raindrops collected in the ruts of my coffee’s plastic lid. Umbrellas popped up like mushrooms all along the street. The crowd had shifted to office workers and businessmen with long, self-important strides. Dark suits and dark umbrellas. Like a funeral.

[6] The mission at 27th Street Methodist opened at 7:30. Old, brown brick with tall, narrow windows, designed by someone to instill good old-fashioned religious awe. The marble steps were slippery with rain, though it had stopped a while ago. There was a side door, but I preferred the giant oaken ones, heavy to touch but noiseless on oiled hinges.

From the tall windows inside, painted sunlight dodged pillars and flooded the still sanctuary, though dusk still shrouded the dais. Warm voices drifted up from the basement, where the homeless were now milling about exchanging greetings, and the kitchen staff was bustling frantically. I’ll join them in a moment, but for now I stood in the back pew. A sudden urge grasped me to light a candle for some forgotten one, but here there were no candles to light. I picked up a hymnal instead. It fell open to 437, It Is Well with My Soul. I whispered the words to myself, and they bounced softly from the marble pillars and high ceiling back at me, now colored with light. It was good to be home.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 

On Detective Fiction

Last edited: 2.03pm, Jan 12, 2014.

When I was little, I told people my favorite books were fantasy. Somewhere in my late teens, I realized I was reading way more science fiction than I was fantasy, probably because there was a slightly smaller chance of coming across some stupid teenage romance story. Anyway, a year or two ago I came to a new realization once again: I read more mysteries than anything else. Here’s a few reasons I’m so fond of the genre.

But first, two notes. By “detective,” I refer to both the professional and the amateur. It can be the police officer, a private investigator, a lawyer, or a grade school teacher who unfortunately discovers a dead body and gets caught up in the whole mess. Secondly, I try to read a variety, but I favor those set in large American cities, most of which involve murders (thus “murder mysteries), and my reasons will, unfortunately, show this bias.


So, the reasons. Firstly, good detective fiction is the POETRY of the City (I ignore for the moment the small town mysteries or the ones in abandoned castles). The mystery writer is by necessity familiar with the city about which he writes. He knows the highways and the alleys. He knows where the truck drivers gather at the end of their shift for a drink. He knows where the drug dealers peddle. He knows the history of that old church on the corner. He knows the homeless men by name. He knows what music the small Italian restaurant plays. He knows where to get good Chinese take-out. Detective fiction causes the City to become new.  It opens your eyes to details you have never noticed. The mundane city becomes Poetry. The setting is all important. London for Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown; New York for Nero Wolfe and his errand boy Archie; L.A. for the likes from Philip Marlowe to Harry Bosch. You cannot uproot the detective. You cannot cast put Holmes in Chicago anymore than you could chase Marlowe from L.A. Holmes will forever lead us dancing through the cobbled streets of London, whereas Marlowe will have us driving down Hollywood Boulevard on a hot and lonely summer night.

Detective fiction, by nature of its genre, deals with the darkest side of humanity. It records the darkest nights of the City. The detective crawls from the drug crazed alleys of blood to the beautiful homes of highest society, which in turn are tapestried with corruption, intrigue, backstabbing, no less depraved than the meanest streets. The detective witnesses all this. The writer does not shield us from such horrors. Yet still, he cannot but write of this city with a tender lovingness.

Slowly, his eyes came up and he looked through the kitchen window and out through the Cahuenga Pass. The lights of Hollywood glimmered in the cut, a mirror reflection of the stars of all galaxies everywhere. He thought about all that was bad out there. A city with more things wrong than right. A place where the earth could open up beneath you and suck you into the blackness. A city of lost light. His city. It was all of that and, still, always still, a place to begin again. His city. The city of the second chance.

– excerpt from final chapter of “A Darkness More Than Night” (Harry Bosh), Michael Connelly

One has no right to write of a city one does not love. Detective fiction depicts the darkest nights, but even there he seeks, perhaps desperately, the faint gleam of the stars.


Secondly, detective fiction is not burdened by PLOT. Oh yes, plot is all important, but it is always the same plot: a problem arises (someone is murdered, or someone is missing, or someone received threatening mail), and the detective seeks the culprit, and finally brings him to some form of justice. Everyone knows what to except, so the author is not distracted by trying to think up some new development. (In some other genre, for example, the young high school teacher has now built a meaning bond with his rebellious students. and what should I write in the next novel?) Instead, he can focus on what he find of interest: an ode to the city, or some comment on the criminal justice system, or character development. Because we know where the plot is headed, we can tarry along the way and enjoy the scenery, finding delight in the little details. Of course, maybe we might also act like normal people and take joy in the intellectual challenge of trying to crack the mystery before the main character. But if a piece of detective fiction is merely plot, it is not worth reading, much less re-reading.

Another nice thing about a piece of detective fiction, especially is the current market, is that you can usually be certain than most of the immorality happens on the side of the culprit. If you pick up that novel about the young high school teacher, you have no idea what sort of situations she might find herself in if the author gets bored. She might have a troubling relationship with her alcoholic mother and abusive father, or she might be overly reliant on a boyfriend, or might be pursued by a distasteful cast, or… well, general drama. Perhaps some people like drama, but I’m not too fond of it. Detectives are generally too busy trying to solve a murder to deal with family drama or entertain girlfriends, lucky for me.

I am also very fond of detective fiction because it never pretends to be more than what it is. While the story about the young high school teacher might aspire to be treated as good literature that explores the importance of human relationships or whatever passes for good literature these days, the detective story has no such misguided aspirations. Detective fiction will never rise out of the fate of a mere massmarket paperback, mere pulp fiction, and so the author generally focuses simply on trying to tell a good story. Oh, very often it turns out that it is more than merely a story. It usually offers something a little deeper, a little more lasting than a mere story, but it never does so under for the sake of appearances. The author writes as he does because he can’t help it.


Lastly, and most importantly, detective fiction is one of the few contemporary books which still engage in that primal battle of GOOD AGAINST EVIL. There is something beautiful about that. The world is a broken place, and each detective, no matter how broken he himself is, tries to do wage battle against darkness. They don’t always win, but they sure try.

They don’t do it for the money or the glory either. These men walk through the dirt and the slime because they care. They get beat up, they get shot at, they get worn down by the worries of others, and nobody likes them. Most of them earn next to nothing (Nero Wolfe being the obvious exception), and there are no promotions in sight, but they stick to their miserable jobs, because they care.

We work on obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don’t matter and who never did…we spend out time looking into dead men’s faces, round their rooms, into the motives of their friends, if any, lovers and enemies…. we never make excuses about being undermanned, nor do we care if the case we’re investigating never gets into the papers, nor becomes a national manhunt – and when my friend Sergeant Macintosh was killed by the man he had trapped in a bedsitter off Edith Grove last year, there was no posthumous George Medal for him. No murder is casual to us, and no murder is unimportant, even though murder happens the whole time in a city like this.

~ Chapter One, “He Died with His Eyes Open,” Derek Raymond

These are men who care. And though they walk through the darkest streets of the city and witness the worst of humanity, yet somehow, they hold on to their principles. It is not that they are not tainted by the very darkness they fight, but they do not compromise. They have their own moral code – and sometimes I don’t agree with them. But I respect them, even if they are fictional characters, for holding on to that faint glimmer of starlight even as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The detective who bluffs his way into the office of the city official and proceeds to grill him about his questionable income is surely no less valiant that St. George taking on the dragon, though often more lonely.


But night will soon be drawing to a close, and my eyes are finally drooping (sleep did not come easily), so I’ll leave you with these thoughts. Please do comment, if it so pleases you. And may you have sweeter dreams than I’ve had.