My Reading Life in Epigraphs

This is a guest post from Tara Cheesman-Olmsted. Tara’s bookshelves are filled with translations, international fiction and books about epidemics. Her e-reader is filled with romance novels. She reviews some of those books for online magazines. When not reading or writing, Tara spends her time obsessively collecting wooden pencils, exploring cities in search of new book stores, and attending the occasional art exhibit. She was a panelist at the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival in New York City and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Since 2009 she’s written the blog BookSexy Review. Follow her on Twitter @booksexyreview.


We form relationships with some of the books we read, but when does that connection actually start? For me, more often than not, it can begin before I even read the first chapter. I’m a sucker for epigraphs – the quotations or excerpts from another book that an author chooses to place at the beginning of their own. Because it’s such a strange thing to do – an author inviting a comparison to another (perhaps better) book or writer. And because, I always wonder, exactly how big of an ego do you need to name drop Shakespeare? Faulkner, for example, seems to have had no qualms using a quote from Macbeth to explain the title of The Sound and the Fury. Never mind the fact that he didn’t trust that his readers were up on their Shakespeare to get the reference without him explaining – which makes it that much worse.

Epigraphs also make for a good game of seven degrees of literary separation. The Argentine writer Claudia Pineiro put three separate epigraphs at the start of her mystery novel Betty Boo. The third is:

“The story goes on; it can go on; there are various possible conjectures; it’s still open; it merely gets interrupted. The investigation has no end; it cannot end. Someone should invent a new literary genre, paranoid fiction. Everyone’s a suspect; everyone feels pursued.” – Ricardo Piglia, Blanco Nocturno  

I immediately put the book down and began scanning my bookshelves.  There it was: Ricardo Piglia’s (another Argentine writer) Target In the Night.  I’d finished it only a month before. Out of curiousity, I reread the epigraph Piglia chose. Louis-Ferdinand Celine: “Experience is a dim lamp that only lights the one who bears it.” Time to finally get around to reading Journey to the End of the Night.  

Next: five books, randomly pulled from the shelf, contained between two and three epigraphs each.  Juan Jose Saer’s La Grande has four.  Individuals quoted vary greatly and include: Morio Kita, William Longgood, Rabbi Isaac Abravanel, Stendhal, George Steiner, Juan L. Ortiz, Quevado, Milton, the Abbreviated Dictionary of Surrealism (the translator didn’t even bother to translate the Milton or the Dictionary of Surrealism into English), and Jacob Riis. Some names I recognize, some I don’t. Some of the combinations make me grin. Jeanette Winterson’s epigraphs for her 2004 novel Lighthousekeeping:

“Remember you must die” – Muriel Spark

“Remember you must live”  – Ali Smith

And in the opening pages of The Ballad of Typhoid Mary by J.F. Federspiel:  “Life is strange and the world is bad.” Thomas Wolfe said that. He died of tuberculosis, not typhoid.

The jolt of recognition that occurs when I read a quote by an author or from a book I’ve read before always make me happy. As if I’ve suddenly discovered the book and I share a mutual friend. Which, in a way, we do. Epigraphs introduce a very private, and very personal, element to my reading life that I’ve unexpectedly come to value.

Do you pay as much attention to epigraphs or just flip past them in your rush to start reading? Do you have a favorite epigram? Let us know in the comments below.

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