Boris Fishman

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Marginal Contributions

Recently I purchased online a used copy of “The Rise of David Levinsky,” Abraham Cahan’s epic 1917 tale of a penniless immigrant’s dubious evolution into a spiritually vacant New York tycoon. It turned out to be infested with notes made by a previous reader. I huffed my way through 200 pages of fatuous marginalia — “Giving $ doesn’t make you happy” — until my predecessor. . . suddenly vanished.

“Where did she go?” I wondered anxiously. Maybe she skimmed? But how could she, in this critical section of Levinsky’s transformation? And then, on page 339, she reappeared. Though her analytical prowess had not exactly improved — “Reshaping his identity; transformation over the years,” was her groundbreaking pronouncement on preceding events–I was relieved to have my partner back. When we crossed the finish line together, on page 518, I felt an affection that was as mysterious as her identity. We’d made it through this opus together.

These days, an annotated book is a disfigured book, and most people react to marginalia as I had at first. Sightings of marginal comments induce palpitations in librarians; even ordinary readers look askance when you underline a sentence. “Most people don’t want to read other people’s thoughts,” says Jay Phillips, the manager of Rodney’s Bookstore in Cambridge, who says he buys few marked-up titles.

Two hundred years ago, however, readers cherished annotated books.

Friends gossiped and suitors courted sweethearts through notes in the margins of shared texts, and individual copies made the rounds of social circles, each contributor adding personal comments to the communal reading record.

How social convention evolved from one extreme to the other is the province of an academic field as new as its subject matter — our habit of physically engaging with our reading material–is ancient. Frequently employing artifacts such as annotated books, “history of the book” studies is reinventing our understanding of how we read. Its practitioners — a fastidious lot of academics, rare-book scholars, antiquarian book dealers, and librarians — investigate the physical appearance of books as well as the cultural milieus that produced them. If a French Revolution-era anti-royalist tract appeared in a version printed on pallid paper made from ground petticoat rags as well as in an expensive edition on fine paper, what does this tell us about the social makeup of the monarchy’s detractors? If the cover of a 1966 reissue of Mikhail Lermontov’s “A Hero of Our Time” features a grainy watercolor of the author as a classically dashing, if dyspeptic, young man, what does a 2004 edition boasting a similarly choleric-looking hipster reveal about how times have changed (and haven’t)?

The research is at once arcane and riveting. For instance, Matthew Grenby, a scholar at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in England, has been studying inscriptions in hundreds of 18th-century children’s books to learn about their owners. At that time, medical advances that extended life expectancy and an emerging, increasingly affluent middle class fostered the rise of a modern children’s literature that concerned itself with entertainment as much as instruction.

“Put crudely, if they were less likely to die young, it was more worthwhile [for parents] to invest in them, both emotionally and financially,” says Grenby, who is working on a book on the subject. But children often had their own ideas about what to do with the books. Spurred by the “surrounding consumer revolution,” according to Grenby, they tended to aggressively scratch out the names of their books’ previous owners before asserting their own proprietorship. Some, like this young lad breaking in a copy of a book called “Christmas Tales,” went even further: “This book is mine/and none of thine/therefore let it alone/If you it take I will/brake your pate/and send you/crying home.”

The children’s habit of scrawling in books merely reflected prevailing social attitudes. Prior to the 18th century, when books were scarce and tended toward didactic religious content, whatever annotation appeared was usually supplied by authoritative commentators and printed alongside the text. By the 1700s, technological advances moderately increased the supply of books for a growing middle class that had more money and time to read them.

As H. J. Jackson, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, reveals in “Marginalia,” her exhaustive 2001 study of the practice, in an epistolary age when books were still relatively rare, readers started to communicate through their margins. Robert Burns composed a poem that was “Written on the Blank Leaf of a Copy of the Last Edition of My Poems, Presented to the Lady Whom, in so Many Fictitious Reveries of Passion, but with the Most Ardent Sentiments of Real Friendship, I Have so often Sung under the Name of Chloris.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a prolific annotator who was often asked by friends to mark up their books, was less charitable, devising an entire marginal system of code to disparage the work of the poet Robert Southey: “L.M.” for “ludicrous metaphor”; “S.E.” for “Southey’s English, i.e. no English at all.”

As books proliferated and prices fell in the 19th century, almost anyone could have a book in which to doodle. More books, however, also meant libraries, book clubs, and public schools, institutions that forcefully discouraged marks in books that were meant to be shared. Marginalia acquired a bad rap.

The social default hasn’t changed since then. Jackson’s “Marginalia” includes an outtake from a section entitled “Underlining and Marginal Annotations” in a Canadian archival guide. It features a venerable-looking scholar taking notes on a volume in a separate notebook — and an ape highlighting text in the original.

Jackson’s book takes pains to validate marginalia as intellectually useful. But this seems to miss part of the point. Do we read strictly for information or intellectual improvement? What about the emotional enchantment of communing with a text and, possibly, a preceding community of readers? Aren’t we sometimes thrilled by the commentary of these anonymous secret sharers, by the person who also saw that film or sweated for hours over that recipe, even when the film was bad and the recipe rotten?

After my experience with the Cahan book, I surveyed some bibliophile friends about marginalia. For one, a writer living in Prague, the discovery in the local library of an old German contraband copy of Kafka’s “The Trial” (Kafka was mostly banned under the Communists), its margins covered with handwritten German-Czech translations, was a bracing transport to another time. For another, the downstairs library of her childhood home was the confessional of her reticent family. “To find the books my grandfather read when he was involved with the Manhattan Project (“Henry IV,” both parts) or the books my father read when he was heading off to war (anything Fitzgerald) or getting through a first divorce (“The Alexandria Quartet”) was to … see them in truly new ways,” she told me.

“The mystery is captivating,” Matthew Grenby said about his research on children’s inscriptions. If historians of the book burrow into the communities that produced the books they study in order to gain insight into the text, doesn’t it make sense that private readers might benefit from this as well? Even if that experience undermines their engagement with the book — let’s face it, notes can be distracting — doesn’t the peculiar communion with another human being, amid the clamor and disconnection of the world around us, make up for it? Isn’t a society of readers bound by their love for the written word preferable to the puritanical self-restraint of an unmarked book? Write your answer in the margins.

Published
February 20, 2005