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The Ongoing Evolution of Marginalia

By Harriet Staff

The New Yorker’s Book Bench satisfies all of us marginalia enthusiasts with a lovely piece on the subject. It covers Edgar Allan Poe, Kerouac, David Foster Wallace, and Beckett’s Watt manuscript that was recently exhibited at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. As for readers’ interest in the “ample margin”:

Such readers feel that they aren’t really giving a book their full attention unless they’re hovering over it with a pencil, poised to underline or annotate at the slightest provocation. George Steiner memorably defined an intellectual as “quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.”

Writer Mark O’Connell points us to a piece written in January on the Beckett mss:

There has recently been a slight but noticeable escalation of interest in marginalia, partly because of the way in which the Internet has cultivated readers’ enthusiasm for discussion of their own reading practices and peculiarities, and partly because of a preëmptive nostalgia for the book as a tangible (and scrawlable) object at a time of increasing e-reader ubiquity. On the Open Letters Monthly site a couple of weeks ago, Lisa Peet wrote about the exhibition of Samuel Beckett’s original “Watt” manuscript at the Harry Ransom Center, in Texas. She took issue, sensibly, with the Center’s description of Beckett’s marginal doodlings as a “luminous secular relic,” insisting that his surprisingly accomplished cartoons “don’t need to be elevated to high art to be appreciated.” She declared her fascination with marginalia, with what she called “the voyeurism of seeing someone’s handwriting and doodles, even as I have to wonder—especially with posthumous archival collections—what the writers in question would have thought about having their stream-of-consciousness scribbles put up for such scrutiny.”

It calls to mind David Markson, whose personal library turning up at the Strand quickly after he died has elicited serious analyzation of his marginalia. But back to the New Yorker piece. How, it asks, does the e-reader come in?

Earlier this month, Anderson reprised the “Year in Marginalia” idea for the Times (with added online multimedia content), and last year he published an interesting “Riff” on the topic. Here he characterized writing in books as a way “not just to passively read but to fully enter a text, to collaborate with it, to mingle with an author on some kind of primary textual plane.” He also laid out his fantasy about how e-books might lead to a new golden age in marginalia, whereby readers could share their own electronic jottings and read those of others:

This, it seems to me, would be something like a readerly utopia. It could even (if we want to get all grand and optimistic) turn out to be a Gutenberg-style revolution—not for writing, this time, but for reading. Book readers have never had a mechanism for massively and easily sharing their responses to a text with other readers, right inside the text itself.

This enthusiasm for an underpraised form of writing is infectious, and he makes a compelling case for marginalia-sharing as a means of giving readers’ observations more currency in the literary exchange. But I think he underestimates the extent to which most readers value annotations precisely because they are a private exchange between themselves and whatever book they happen to be talking back to. Personally, I get slightly edgy when people pick paperbacks off my shelves and flick through them; there’s something slightly mortifying about anybody else reading these earnest or facetious marginal interjections (“V. interesting, this!,” “Austen can really write!,” or “Sure, whatever, Wittgenstein…”)

The Kindle allows for electronic marginalia via the “notes” function, but it feels all wrong: something about having to call up a menu and type a note on the keypad, with its little stud-like plastic buttons, makes the whole process seem forced and contrived. Marginalia are supposed to be spontaneous and fluent. “Noting” something on a Kindle feels like e-mailing yourself a throwaway remark. There’s also something attractive about the contrast between the impersonal authority of the printed page and the idiosyncrasies of the reader’s handwriting. A book someone has written in is an oddly intimate object; like an item of clothing once worn by a person now passed away, it retains something of its former owner’s presence.

Read the full article here.


Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, January 31st, 2012 by Harriet Staff.