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July 5, 2010

[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.