Off The Margins
I am a book lover: I’m not simply an avid reader or a chaser of information, but I also immensely enjoy the physical nature of books. In the modern age we live in, books seem quaint. In a world where any fact can be conveniently found and any image, video, or sound downloaded, a book is considered to be old-fashioned. It’s a low-tech version of information management that’s existed for centuries and failed to keep up with modernity. But I still love books. They are neatly ordered ideas, with chapters and pages. Most are compact and portable without the need for adapters or batteries. They’re also amazingly hard to destroy. Get a book wet and when it dries out it’s ready to be read again; that’s not so with most electronic devices. And you can drop them without harm, too.
Some of my earliest memories are of going to library sales or garage sales and buying books someone else owned and enjoyed. Unlike technology that must be upgraded or become obsolete, most books have the ability to carry out their intended purpose despite their age. Often while going through these used books, I would notice that someone else had written in the margins. Notes, ideas, commentary, reactions, questions and answers were scribbled into unfilled space to be read later by their authors and others. Marginalia used to bother me. It angered me to think that someone who had the resources to purchase a fresh, untraveled book would deface it with their own scribbles. Now I appreciate what marginalia are. However, they are beginning to disappear.
In a New York Times article that I read recently called “Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in the Margins,” Dirk Johnson recognizes the decline of marginalia as a loss of some importance. In a world of electronic text and other forms of communication, information and entertainment, reading paper books doesn’t have the appeal it once did. With few people reading paper books and even fewer people responding to what they read with marginal notes, literary archaeologists are afraid that marginalia may literally become a physical artifact.
I came across a term in this article I had never heard before: association copies. Association copies are copies of books that are valuable not necessarily for the printed content of the book itself but instead are important because they are associated with a particular author. Many association copies contain marginalia written by the authors themselves—essentially authors commenting on their own work in their own words. It is not only association copies that benefit from marginalia either. Famous people commenting or annotating other authors’ books or even books annotated by ordinary people whose notes give a view into their lives and times are prized by bibliophiles for the insights they give. These fragments of the readers’ thoughts and responses give insight to how they thought, felt, read and lived. The notes they chose to make give an idea of what these people valued.
Marginalia, in my opinion, offer two other major benefits that are difficult to achieve with modern technology: marginalia offer a truer version of interaction and are not as transitory as modern forms of commentary.
First, marginalia are interactions in a very specific sense. They are immediate responses manifested textually as something read. However, unlike a post to a blog or a website, marginalia won’t be read by hundreds or thousands or millions of people. An electronic post may be edited or altered to score points with a perceived audience, but marginalia are unlikely to do that. Some studies have shown that it takes more mental effort to write longhand than to type the same thing on a keyboard. More parts of the brain fire when a person writes a response than when they type one. It is important to acknowledge that marginalia alter a physical object, an action which is shown by some studies to have a deeper mental impact than the mental state that occurs without a physical act. In other words, writing in the margins of a book leaves a deeper and longer-lasting impression on the reader’s mind than typing words on a screen. This leads me to my second point: that marginalia are not as transitory as other forms of commentary.
In this age of e-books and other forms of electronic text it becomes harder to annotate in the same ways. In my experience, one of two things happens: one can either create a secondary electronic text containing notes about the first one, which adds to the constantly growing, ever-flowing information stream, or one can create a print-out of an electronic text that requires annotation by hand. This printout has notes made on it, is highlighted, etc. However unlike used books that contain margin notes, these printouts are less concrete. They become ephemera, lasting only temporarily until they are shredded, recycled, tossed out or otherwise lost to future readers.
What we often seem to forget in this age of blogs, wikis, tweets and websites is that books offer some things that are increasingly difficult to find. They are a form of knowledge that is slow to change and yet still able to be changed. Marginalia change these books, change the knowledge they contain, and offer insight into the people who read and then write in them. And this is a very important way of sharing words.