On Marginalia

In this week’s Monday Times there was an article headlined, “Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in the Margins.” At once I shifted into high gear and read it with deep concentration, roused from the Net-induced fragmented thinking that has swept over me lately.

The article written by Dirk Johnson bemoans the end of the fine art of scribbling marks in the margin that he believes electronic readers are bound to lead to. The concern he describes is almost exclusively among literary scholars who will be at a loss once they are no longer able to glean the insights revealed by the notes writers have made in the books read they’ve read. How they do this has always been a mystery to me

It is almost uniformly believed that e-readers will put an end to this practice to the extent that notable writers read with these gadgets. However, according to G. Thomas Tansville, “People will always find a way to annotate electronically. But there is the question of how it is going to be preserved.”

The article cites the work of Heather Jackson who has written several books on the significance of the marginalia found in books. She believes these margin notes have considerable historical meaning and reveal “a pattern of emotional reactions among everyday readers that might otherwise be missed, even by literary professionals.” I confess, I have read Jackson’s books and have yet to be persuaded.

But it seems to me the issue extends well beyond the preservation of marginalia for scholarly research. The issue concerns the very nature of reading itself and the degree to which a reader becomes engaged with the text. It is clearly expressed by Studs Terkel, the oral historian, who is quoted in the Times article as admonishing “a friend who would read his books but leave them free of markings. He told them that reading a book should not be a passive exercise, but rather a raucous conversation.”

Most engaged readers read slowly as they stop to consider a sentence or an idea and sometimes put a note in the margin or highlight a passage to indicate this. And some of them will collect these passages and preserve them in what has traditionally come to be known as a commonplace book.

Not many contemporary readers do this. But it wasn’t so long ago that it was the norm, when readers wrote on the pages of the text what they thought about it and collected their reflections in a notebook. They might have read in a more disjointed fashion, skipping from one book to another to let their thoughts settle in or spend time annotating the material in order to make some sense of it.

This might have been the golden age of reading, the period that reached its peak during the Renaissance but is largely extinct now. What we have lost is not only the marginalia of celebrity readers but also the practice of engaged reading itself.

For some individuals the art of reading, as David Ulin, points out in his recent book The Lost Art of Reading is an “act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read…but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.”

It’s a matter of becoming involved in the text and thinking about it and while that is sometimes a time-consuming process, it is made a little easier by putting your thoughts down on the page so you can recapture them later. Reading a book may take days or weeks, but that is sometimes only the beginning of thinking about it. Collecting marginal notes in a commonplace book enables you to keep the reading experience alive and make the most of its lingering after effects.