Anonymous Commentary on Fifth Business (1)

I buy most of my books used. It works out for the most part: I get a book in serviceable condition for less than it would cost new. From time to time, however, I end up with a strange specimen.

My dad has been telling me to read Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business for years. It’s a novel about the life of a boy from a Scottish family, living in a fictional village in Canada. I bought it used, sight unseen, and it arrived last week. Its pages are marked extensively in pencil and the notes are hilarious. Some are very obviously observations that ended up in homework for a freshman Lit seminar. Others are related to the text but sarcastic and absurd. Still others might be related to the text or might simply be notes written to someone sitting (evidently to the immediate left) of the book’s previous owner. I’m only fifty pages in, but some of the best are included below, presented as a dialogue between Davies’s narrator, Dunny Ramsay and the scholar with the pencil and sense of humor.

(All underlining the work of the scholar.)


RAMSAY:  His clothes were better than ours, and he had an interesting pocket-knife, with a chain on it to fasten to his knickerbockers, and an ink-bottle you could knock over without spilling a drop; on Sundays he wore a suit with a fashionable half-belt at the back.

SCHOLAR:  This sentence is useless.


RAMSAY:  He shot the beam of his flashlight into the scrub, and in that bleak, flat light we saw a tramp and a woman in the act of copulation.

SCHOLAR:  *eats popcorn*


RAMSAY:  The strange thing was that the behaviour of this licensed fool made the enormity of Mrs. Dempster’s words greater, but did not lower the town’s esteem of Cece Athelstan – probably because it could go no lower.

SCHOLAR:  Probably bc SEXISM.


RAMSAY:  Certainly he associated sex with pleasure, and that put him in a class with filthy thinkers like Cece Athelstan.

SCHOLAR:  Yup, no correlation there.


RAMSAY:  It was the indignity, the ignominy, the squalor, to which war reduced a wounded man that most ate into me.

SCHOLAR:  Finally, an emotion!


RAMSAY:  I might as well say at once that although I was on pretty good terms with everybody I made no lasting friends.

SCHOLAR:  lmao like high school (jk luv the squad).


RAMSAY:  It was the boredom that comes of being cut off from everything that could make life sweet, or arouse curiosity, or enlarge the range of the senses. It was the boredom that comes of having to perform endless tasks that have no savour and acquire skills one would gladly be without.

SCHOLAR: haha like school.


RAMSAY: Elbert Hubbard was a notoriously queer American

SCHOLAR: Same


RAMSAY:  In a week Willie was up and aout; in four months he had somehow lied his way into the Canadian Army; in 1916 he was one of those who disappeared forever in the mud at St. Eloi.

SCHOLAR:        :(


RAMSAY:  Quite soon Willie fell asleep, and Mrs. Dempster and I talked in whispers. She was deeply pleased but, as I now remember it, did not seem particularly surprised by what had happened. I know I babbled like a fool.

SCHOLAR:  OKAY WTF … stupid af … i h8 annalise

N.B. There is no character named “Annalise” so I assume that Annalise is sitting somewhere in the classroom and that our scholar doesn’t particularly care for her.


RAMSAY:  His imitations of the parsons were finely observed, and he was very good as the Reverend Andrew Bowyer: “O Lord, take Thou a live coal from off Thine altar and touch our lips.”

SCHOLAR:  omg me reading the sparknotes to start shit. But also get ur head out of ur butt.

N.b. Again, my suspicion here is that the left margins of even-numbered pages serve as scratch paper for the passing of notes.


For the record, the author is poking fun at the puritanical judgment of his turn-of-the-century small town and the scholar seems to take this all at face value. For the record, it’s also hilarious. Here’s hoping the next two hundred pages don’t sharpen his or her attention to sarcasm and satire. If all used books came with entertainment of this sort, I might pay more for them rather than less.


Peter Amos