Joho the Blog » [2b2k] The golden age of marginalia

[2b2k] The golden age of marginalia

Ian Frazier has a well-done-as-usual piece in the New Yorker, reporting on a visit to the Berg Collection in the NY Public Library, where the librarian Ann Garner showed him some literary marginalia — Mark Twain, Nabokov, Ted Hughes, Kerouac on Thoreau, and more.

It begins with a paean to the physicality of books, leading to:

In the soft lamplight, the open pages of the books she had chosen glowed like a physical and visible representation of the sublime.

All part of our culture’s long goodbye to the Era of the Book. Books will be with us forever, but functionally and iconically they’re being replaced by networks that don’t glow nearly as sublimely in soft lamplight.

The irony is that the digitizing of books should bring us into the Golden Age of Marginalia, in which not only is it easier than ever to highlight and annotate passages, but we can benefit from the marginalia of others, especially as reading becomes social. We will lose the thrill of knowing that Kerouac’s hand scratched that line of ink into this book, but we will gain the ability to learn from the digital traces left by all of today’s Kerouacs, Kerouac scholars, and Kerouac readers.

12 Responses to “[2b2k] The golden age of marginalia”

  1. I make a lot of marginalia in books I read, most of them related to the language in which I read most often, which is not my mother’s tongue…

    Honestly, if I read a book in eBook format, I did not figure out yet, how to make any margin notes. Did you? How and with what format ?

    Of course, if we take more abstract notion of marginalia and pack e.g. blogs into that class — its OK, but it is still hard to see them when you read, unless you google at almost any chapter…

    So, how to become today’s Kerouacs with today’s eBooks?

    The physicality of books has yet another feature we overlooked in our previous discussion — that of marginalia ….

  2. […] Joho the Blog » [2b2k] The golden age of marginalia […]

  3. Mirek, totally right. Today’s ebooks have all but ignored the interactive side of reading, much less the social side. Trying to highlight or take notes on a Kindle is somewhere between a joke and a nightmare.

  4. David, seems like in the course of this thread we (almost and by a kind of serendipity) found an object of New Big Business idea for venture capitalists – eBooks with easy-to-use and, of course, socialy oriented – marginalia !!!!

    LOL :-)

  5. The books on my shelves are like companions. E-books remind me of ghostly presences, partially materialized then poof! – they vanish.

    E-books demand another kind of physical presence – that of the machine that transmits and stores them. Until we figure out a way to transmit writing telepathically, words must inhabit some type of physical form.

    I prefer to sit by a wood burning hearth rather than watch an evening autumn fire burning on the television.

    Newspapers present us with ephemeral daily news. Digital formats seem preferable for ephemeral readings and writings. We no longer have the problem of printing, distributing, and disposing of daily newspapers. Researchers can easily return to newspapers written many years ago. I can now read selected articles from a large number of daily newspapers, magazines, and personal blogs. We don’t save conversations or phone calls and we no longer need a stack of old newspapers accumulating in the garage.

    But I treasure books almost like hand-made pottery. I suppose I could drink my morning coffee through an automated hose but I like the feel of the warm mug. It is the same for me with a book.

    But I am Old School. I have over 4,000 of my friends snoozing around the house. Most of them I have discovered like rare treasures on excursions to Used Book Stores. Many have interesting inscriptions; some are filled with old postcards and newspaper clippings. I have found and read books I never would have found and read had I not spent hours searching for them in these Bookshops.

    I recently visited a museum in St Johnsbury, Vermont and I was surprised to read in an old newspaper that Homeopathic Physicians were commonplace in the early 1800″s. I don’t consider myself a luddite, but I do not believe that technology effectively replaces everything that went before it. Homeopathic remedies may become more effective and less harmful than modern allopathic medications with their multitude of side effects.

    I believe the book will remain and flourish simply because people will always wish to have and to hold them. The sacred vow of the Book – till death do us part!

  6. A new book just out June 29, 2010 and doing quite well at 148 on the best seller list is titled – Hamlet’s Blackberry – by Harvard grad William Powers. Today on NPR he spoke with skepticism on the possibility of technology replacing books.Here is the review from Publisher’s weekly:

    From Publishers Weekly
    Our discombobulated Internet Age could learn important new tricks from some very old thinkers, according to this incisive critique of online life and its discontents. Journalist Powers bemoans the reigning dogma of digital maximalism that requires us to divide our attention between ever more e-mails, text messages, cellphone calls, video streams, and blinking banners, resulting, he argues, in lowered productivity and a distracted life devoid of meaning and depth. In a nifty and refreshing turn, he looks to ideas of the past for remedies to this hyper-modern predicament: to Plato, who analyzed the transition from the ancient technology of talking to the cutting-edge gadgetry of written scrolls; to Shakespeare, who gave Hamlet the latest in Elizabethan information apps, an erasable notebook; to Thoreau, who carved out solitary spaces amid the press of telegraphs and railroads. The author sometimes lapses into mysticism—In solitude we meet not just ourselves but all other selves—and his solutions, like the weekend-long Internet Sabbaths he and his wife decreed for their family, are small-bore. But Powers deftly blends an appreciation of the advantages of information technology and a shrewd assessment of its pitfalls into a compelling call to disconnect. (July)

  7. William Powers on the Diane Rehm show today:

    http://thedianerehmshow.org/audio-player?nid=12698

  8. Well, now that I’m teaching a college course, I actually HATE the printed book! (some of them!)
    They’re out of date before they’re printed!
    It’s really REALLY Heavy to commute with for both me and my students.
    They cause lots of trees to be cut down.
    Textbook companies print them, ship them on planes and in trucks then have to shred and recycle them.

    I love the fact that these companies are allowing mash ups of chapters of different books, the ability to add timely articles, pay for all the rights, and send my students an E-book that fits the exact course I need to teach.

    I still enjoy paper novels. But I won’t lament the imminent death of the out of date textbook.

    Now, we DO need better margin notes, better sharing of annotations, highlighting, etc.
    AND we need better, more open formats, so that when my iPad is a relic like my 1MB! Macintosh Plus, I can still read the eBook I paid for.

  9. Thanks for this thoughtful post, David, and this interesting thread. Before turning to reading and writing in the digital age, I worked on reading and writing in the last great information age, the late 18th century, where steam-powered presses, machine-made paper, and machine-made ink allowed middle and even working class people to have access to books, newspapers, and magazines for the first time in history. Circulating libraries and public schooling came too. So did the novel, the video game of the 18th century. I was interested in actual readers so found hundreds of extant copies of books (mostly cheap duodecimos) and scoured them for marginalia and comments on the end papers to have some sense of how the first generation of mass readers actually read. (All this is in Revolution and the Word). Now there are vast communities of readers one can follow on line, whether in the reviews on Amazon or online bookclubs, or blogs or posts. Whether one leaves traces in one’s e-book or not is one matter. Whether one leaves behind traces of one’s reading somewhere is another: online, there are “reams” (funny term for webby reading) of traces of reading. Extratextual marginalia! If one is not literal about the tracks of one’s reading, we’re in a great age of extratextual commentary and community . . .

  10. E-book formats are perfect for textbooks which are chiefly compilations. At the Bread Loaf School of English we would receive xeroxed packets of materials which the professor had culled from plethora of sources.

    E-book formats might place the construction of the textbook in the hands of the knowledgeable professor and out of the hands of the publisher or the Texas School Board of Education. Textbooks promote generic and hierarchic dissemination of selected materials whereas E-books constructed by individual professors would promote a more democratic and egalitarian dissemination of knowledge. Buy local organic produce and construct local , relevant and timely textbooks.

    But a textbook is an entirely different species of ‘book’ than a book written by one author and held in the hands of one reader. So E-books have applicability to more social situations (classrooms), whereas the printed book is more suitable for individual solitude.

    I can see absolutely no way that one could effectively compare the experience of reading a novel to the playing of a video game. If one lumps both experiences together under the the categories of ‘escape’ or ‘pleasure’ to produce a semblance of identity, one has lost the sense in which these two activities define their ages in entirely different ways.

    Reading a novel requires a consciousness that recedes into solitude in order to confront the entire universe. Playing a video game requires a consciousness that recedes into a solipsism in order to avoid the entire universe.

    Experiencing a work of Art and playing a game are very distinct acts of consciousness.

    In our current Age, so much of Art itself has become a ‘game’ that we have forgotten that a work of Art centers consciousness in a unifying relationship with all that exists.

    In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge distinguished the Primary Imagination from the Secondary Imagination, and he distinguished Imagination itself from what he called Fancy.

    An experience that requires consciousness to create images (reading a novel) is distinct from an experience that merely requires us to perceive and manipulate images that have been constructed by another consciousness (playing a video game).

  11. I’m with Raymond versus Howard — the textbooks are so much different kind of books that they do not suffer from the problem we discuss here. And they are extremely positive — I like Raymonds’ note about deeper democratization of knowledge they bring.

    However, the current eBooks per se, lack so many features of paper Books, and we must be very careful about them.
    Marginalia is the big thing we lost on the way. Distraction is the big thing we got …

    Raymond, I like what you wrote: “Reading a novel requires a consciousness that recedes into solitude in order to confront the entire universe”

    I just finish very very long reading/listening to “Les Miserables” — how true is your saying …

  12. Hi, I met you in Google and I really enjoyed your blog.
    There is a new site with an application for marginalia on eBooks which seems very promising: http://www.eAnagnosis.com

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