“What I Really Want is Someone Rolling Around in the Text”
By Sam Anderson
New York Times Magazine
March 4, 2011
One day in college I was trawling the library for a good book to read when I found a book called “How to Read a Book.” I tried to read it, but must have been doing something wrong, because it struck me as old-fashioned and dull, and I could get through only a tiny chunk of it. That chunk, however, contained a statement that changed my reading life forever. The author argued that you didn’t truly own a book (spiritually, intellectually) until you had marked it up.
This hit home for me — it spoke to the little scribal monk who lives deep in the scriptorium of my soul — and I quickly adopted the habit of marginalia: underlining memorable lines, writing keywords in blank spaces, jotting important page numbers inside of back covers. It was addictive, and useful; I liked being able to glance back through, say, “Great Expectations,” and discovering all of its great sentences already cued up for me. (Chapter 4, underlined: “I remember Mr. Hubble as a tough high-shouldered stooping old man, of a sawdusty fragrance, with his legs extraordinarily wide apart: so that in my short days I always saw some miles of open country between them when I met him coming up the lane.”) This wasn’t exactly radical behavior — marking up books, I’m pretty sure, is one of the Seven Undying Cornerstones of Highly Effective College Studying. But it quickly began to feel, for me, like something more intense: a way to not just passively read but to fully enter a text, to collaborate with it, to mingle with an author on some kind of primary textual plane.
Soon my little habit progressed into a full-on dependency. My markings grew more elaborate — I made stars, circles, checks, brackets, parentheses, boxes, dots and lines (straight, curved and jagged). I noted intra- and extratextual references; I measured cadences with stress marks. Texts that really grabbed me got full-blown essays (sideways, upside-down, diagonal) in the margins. I basically destroyed my favorite books with the pure logorrheic force of my excitement, spraying them so densely with scribbled insight that the markings almost ceased to have meaning. Today I rarely read anything — book, magazine, newspaper — without a writing instrument in hand. Books have become my journals, my critical notebooks, my creative outlets. Writing in them is the closest I come to regular meditation; marginalia is — no exaggeration — possibly the most pleasurable thing I do on a daily basis.
All of which means I’ve been feeling antsy over the last five years, as I’ve watched the inexorable rise of e-readers. I sympathize with the recent wave of public teeth-gnashing about the future of marginal notes. The digital book — scentless, pulp-free, antiseptic — seems like a poor home for the humid lushness of old-fashioned marginalia. You can’t even write by hand in an e-book — at least not comfortably, not yet. As John Dickerson recently put it on Slate, describing his attempt to annotate books on an iPad: “It’s like eating candy through a wrapper.” Although I’ve played with Kindles and iPads and Nooks, and I like them all in theory, I haven’t been able to commit to any of them. As readers, they disable the thing that, to me, defines reading itself. And yet I’ve continued to hope that, in some not-too-distant future, e-reading will learn to take marginalia seriously. And it looks as if that might be happening right now.
According to the marginalia scholar H. J. Jackson, the golden age of marginalia lasted from roughly 1700 to 1820. The practice, back then, was surprisingly social — people would mark up books for one another as gifts, or give pointedly annotated novels to potential lovers. Old-school marginalia was — to put it into contemporary cultural terms — a kind of slow-motion, long-form Twitter, or a statusless, meaning-soaked Facebook, or an analog, object-based G-chat. (Nevermind: it was social, is my point.) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the undisputed all-time champion of marginalia, flourished at the tail end of this period, and his friends were always begging him to mark up their books. He eventually published some of his own marginalia, and in the process even popularized the word “marginalia” — a self-consciously pompous Latinism intended to mock the triviality of the form.
It’s probably natural, here in the 21st century, to fret over the future of literature — to worry that, in an era in which everyone wants everything to be social and interactive, serious reading will be impossible. Yet books are curious objects: their strength is to be both intensely private and intensely social — and marginalia is a natural bridge between these two states. It might end up serving equally well as a bridge between online and literary culture, between focus and distraction: a point of contact that could improve both without hurting either. Digital technology, rather than destroying the tradition of marginalia, could actually help us return it to its gloriously social 18th-century roots.
Because this yearning for social reading persists. I recently let a friend borrow my copy of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” one of the more compulsively annotated books in my library. Midway through her reading, I needed it back, so she switched to a virginal store-bought copy. The fresh one, she told me afterward, felt a little lonely by comparison: she missed the meta-conversation running in the margins, the sense of another consciousness co-filtering D.F.W.’s words, the footnotes to the footnotes to the footnotes to the footnotes.
This gave me an epiphany — a grand vision of the future of social reading. I imagined a stack of transparent, margin-size plastic strips containing all of my notes from “Infinite Jest.” These, I thought, could be passed out to my friends, who would paste them into their own copies of the book and then, in turn, give me their marginalia strips, which I would paste into my copy, and we’d all have a big virtual orgy of never-ending literary communion.
It was a hopelessly clunky idea: a vision right out of a Library Science seminar circa 1949. It occurred to me later, however, that this embarrassingly analog fantasy should actually be possible, fairly simply, right now, with digital technology — that this sort of hypercharged marginalia might be one area where the e-book can actually improve on the tree-book.