Friday, March 11, 2011

Not Dead Yet: Marginalia and the Book

There was a recent New York Times article on marginalia, those little scribbles that bibliophiles scrawl in books' margins. Dirk Johnson, the article's author, suggests that the increase in electronic publishing modes decreases the interest in books and, consequentially, that little spark of insight that often comes when we read with a pencil in hand. An economic argument saturates the piece, which is noticeable through Johnson's opening anecdote--Mark Twain's notes in Walter Besant's The Pen and the Book. Johnson comments about the marginalia that makes an otherwise unimportant book rather valuable: "The scribbler was Mark Twain, who had penciled, among other observations, a one-way argument with the author, Walter Besant, that 'nothing could be stupider' than using advertising to sell books as if they were 'essential goods' like 'salt' or 'tobacco.'”

Johnson traps his reader in viewing the book only as a fetishized object--the very "essential goods" categorization that Twain derides. If we do not take notes in books, books will depreciate in value, and this important exchange of ideas--like a flow of currency--will get dammed for good. It's a recent tolling of the printed book's death knells.

The essential aspect of marginalia is not the exchange value it generates for a book but--if we're going to get ourselves stuck in Johnson's materialist world--the book's use value. Marginalia creates a community of readers that supersedes generations. I arrived at this idea (and remembered Johnson's article) as I read a poem in Rachel Hadas's collection The River of Forgetfulness. In that poem, "Marginalia," Hadas informs her reader that "[w]ho scans and skips misses the ghostly power / of all the readers who have come before" and that "the measliest annotation / helps us determine by triangulation / what some previous peruser thought." For those of us who have an affection for used books, we can feel the hands of previous readers as we turn through the pages, and if we encounter a note scribbled in the margin, we find ourselves stumbling into a discussion about life, literature, and politics.

But why does this mean the book is dying? Or that marginalia has had its day? We need to consider the possibility that the text is communicating outside the page's confines. Book reviews, critical essays, the lot of literary nonfiction--all of these can amount to marginalia that's too big to smash into the margins. Electronic publishing is good for what it's good for--taking books on the go and having something to read in transit. But there's nothing like a solid, close reading--something that college English professors should make clear cannot occur without a pencil in hand. That can be through marginalia or notations. The whole point of marginalia isn't how it boosts a book's cost but how it boosts the knowledge we get from reading.

Consider this my footnote on Johnson's New York Times article. Especially since I read it online and don't care to run Sharpie all over my MacBook's screen.


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