In the margins

  

Image from http://airshipdaily.com/blog/marginalia 

Some people write in their books; others view this as desecration. The practice of adding handwritten notes, or marginalia, to books has been going on for centuries. (The Evolution of Marginalia: Kiri L. Wagstaff)

Our love affair with the e-book is showing no signs of abating but like many people I’m still attached to real books and have shelves (and boxes) full of books I can’t bear to part with. Books have been a huge part of my life, I’ve always been an avid reader and novels have often been a refuge for me, a place to lose myself for an hour or two or three.

When e-books came along I swore I’d never convert but one Kindle app and three years down the road almost every novel I read now is read on Kindle, and for me it’s joy to walk around with an endless library on tap. But I still find it difficult to read anything other than novels, newspapers and magazines online. If I have to work with a text, rather than just read it for pleasure, wherever possible I work with a real book.  In a similar way, I still find it difficult to adapt to digital note taking, I have tried and failed to ‘get’ Evernote. I still carry around a leather notebook that jostles for space with my iPad in my bag. For me there’s something about the physical act of writing, turning pages, and taking notes that helps my concentration and ability to absorb ideas and concepts. It is how I learnt to learn and so far has been quite impervious to change. And one other thing hasn’t changed, I still wouldn’t dream of writing notes in the book itself.

I listened to R3 programme on marginalia earlier in the year, the practice has been going on for centuries and is a well established focus for historical research. Most e-readers now allow you to mark up and make comments digitally, and whilst some people are worried about how these digital marginalia can be preserved for future generations, software developers are busy adding functionality to our e-readers to enable us to share our mark ups, comments and reflections.

I find this whole topic fascinating and challenging. As someone who’s always been fanatical about not marking books (I used to have a whole selection of bookmarks to prevent page folding) the concept that another reader’s written annotations could add value rather than detract from a text was a bit of an anathema to me. I admit I find other people’s scribbling distracting, it leads my eye and without great attention I’m pulled into the previous reader’s slipstream taking their ideas, questions and interpretations rather than forming my own. 

But the programme challenged me to think again. As have various posts and articles I’ve read about the topic. One researcher, Cathy Marshall explored the value students drew from using second-hand annotated text books. Unlike me these students were drawn to  marked up copies in libraries for the handed down wisdom of former readers. When I’ve discussed this with other people, they’ve often felt the same, for them annotations add something new to the reading exprience.

This got me thinking, aren’t annotations on texts similar to shared wikis and collaborative blogging?  They’re really not that different to digital curation and the collective sense making we co-create in digital spaces which I’m all for.  So I’m intrigued by why I’m so uncomfortable with making or seeing annotations in the margins of my books?

The best answer I can give is that it’s an emotional response for me, a reverence bred in childhood where books were something special to be cherished. But I’m beginning to see how annotation can also be read as a form of respect.  I’m beginning to think maybe I’m being short sighted, a creature of habit stuck in old ways, and that perhaps I should take a more collaborative approach and start marking up. If you’re interested, these posts all discuss the value of historical and digital marginalia. 

Despite all of this I still find myself loathe to pick up that pen and highlighter! 

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. How do you feel about people writing on books? Does it make your blood boil or fill you with curiosity to see what marks have been left for you the future reader?

One thought on “In the margins

  1. Pingback: The paper magnet | IndaloGenesis

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