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What am I reading? (Some thoughts on marginalia)

December 7, 2016


What am I reading? (Some thoughts on marginalia)


I spent the latter half of this summer looking wistfully out of the window at people enjoying the unexpectedly nice weather and attempting to write a dissertation. Whilst working my way through a stack of books before embarking on the actual writing bit, I found myself becoming (perhaps disproportionately) enraged by what I saw to be the unnecessary volume of underlined sentences and margin notes in the books that I’d borrowed from the library. This intense irritation came to a head when I reached The Mass Ornament by Siefried Kracauer and came across a page with an indelible biro-scrawled circle over the text itself. ‘Who writes in a library book in pen?’ I huffed to myself. ‘And what was even the point of that circle?’ It seemed to loosely ring the word ‘bodies’ in a paragraph in the titular essay but didn’t appear to mark the significance of the word in any legible way, the uselessness of the gesture annoying me further and prompting me to take out my phone, snap a picture of the offending page and post it on Facebook.

The ensuing Facebook thread largely vindicated my annoyance, as many of my friends sympathised with me, some posting pictures of their own encounters with densely-scribbled library books. However, one friend countered my argument that inscribing a piece of collective property with your own thoughts was an act of selfishness by referring to Kenneth Grahame’s essay Marginalia, in which Grahame posits that “the child's scribbling on the margin of his school-books is really worth more to him than all he gets out of them,” and indeed, "to him the margin is the best part of all books, and he finds in it the soothing influence of a clear sky in a landscape."

Mulling over Grahame’s points, whilst questioning my aversion to marginalia, I disliked what I thought of as an individualistic stamp on a communally-owned resource, which hampered my own enjoyment and understanding of the text; in some cases by obscuring important sentences (The Mass Ornament had been particularly abused – some sections had been entirely crossed-out in pencil in order to better highlight the reader’s selected quote, an act that left me spluttering in disbelief) and in some cases by being overly suggestive. Other people’s underlined sections caused me to expend too much energy trying to decode their significance, which in many cases was likely negligible (I’m thinking of a library copy of Walden I’d previously borrowed in which a former reader had underlined hundreds of sentences, annotating them in the margin, over and over, with the word “nature”).

However, at a time when readability is breaking down with the development of digital technologies, it could be interesting to consider marginalia’s place in the construction and obscuring of narratives. When I say readability is breaking down, I’m referring to the difficulty in reconciling old genre conventions with these less tangible technological advancements. Take, for example, the most recent film in the James Bond franchise, Spectre. Spectre has received the lowest score on Rotten Tomatoes of the four latest Daniel-Craig-starring Bond instalments, which have largely been lauded for dragging a tired old story into the 21st century. In an age where large-scale crime is moving online, the Bond films need to prove their relevance and compete on these levels, resulting in a plot based around a shadowy criminal network intent on using technology to wreak havoc. However, as there is still no established, blockbuster-friendly way to depict cyber-crime or online space, the plot is vague to the point of irrelevance.

On the flip side to the erosion of potency of beloved film franchises, it could also be argued that this breakdown in readability offers the potential for positive change. The use of masks and other methods of obscuring the face by protesters aligned to various political groups demonstrates the necessity for a lack of readability in counteracting surveillance culture and preserving the right to protest. Additionally, as the traditional narrative breaks down, systematic prejudices embedded within established conventions could be also eroded. As certain stories become harder to tell or fade away, there is an opportunity for new forms of storytelling and reading and depicting the world to emerge.

In contrast to the effect of digital technologies on the way we absorb narratives, a heavily-annotated book is a totally analogue destroyer of readability, the text and spaces around it crowded by pencil and pen scrawls. But whilst this is a destruction of the readability of the text itself, marginalia introduces a second narrative; that of the previous readers. The critic and marginalia fanatic Sam Anderson, writing on his favourite pastime for the New York Times describes an occasion on which he asked for the return of a book he had lent to a friend, before she had reached the end. The friend bought a fresh copy to continue reading but tells Anderson how she misses “the meta-conversation running in the margins, the sense of another consciousness co-filtering [the] words”.

The presence of another consciousness when I’m reading a book for the first time is precisely what I find so off-putting about marginalia; I’m seeing another person’s thoughts on the text form before I’ve had a chance to develop my own. Perhaps unfairly, I often feel I am witnessing the previous reader performing their intelligence and creativity through their scribbled insights, namely when something that seems insignificant to me has been given particular attention, but then that’s probably just my own neuroses. Anderson goes on to write about the potential for e-readers to facilitate a compromise between lovers and haters of marginalia; as the technology develops, you’ll be able to choose whether or not you’d like to see the notes and thoughts of previous readers on the screen. But whilst a book can only take so much annotation, an e-book could theoretically be marked again and again by layers upon layers of readers. In the thick fog of underlining and notes, hovering somewhere over your book, ready to be released at the touch of a button, which voice (or voices) are really important?

Thanks to Kristien van den Brande and Connie Butler for pointing me towards the reference material.

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