Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Speaking of marginalia…

There was a lovely look at the role of marginalia in paperbound books today in the NYT, which continues my discussion from yesterday on the role of the reader as participant and not just observer in a text:
"Studs Terkel, the oral historian, was known to admonish friends who would read his books but leave them free of markings. He told them that reading a book should not be a passive exercise, but rather a raucous conversation."
I am not at all a part of the Russian-order, monologic school of reading and learning.  I adore used books, and borrowed books; I love engaging with previous readers and the author (himself, too, technically a previous reader) when diving into a new book, and I leave my own dogears and underscoring and marginal exclamations in for the next reader – even if that next reader is me, a few years down the road.

There is so much to learn from how others engage with material, much of which is related to the sensory, tactile experience of holding a book and seeing grease smudges and fingernail scoring and little rips in the pages that can't be replicated in the digital form.  I have nothing but positive thoughts for ebooks and the possibilities digital publishing affords, but I can't imagine a world without marginalia, and without a conversation between readers over time.  In this way, I absolutely agree with one of the voices in the article:
"David Spadafora, president of the Newberry, said marginalia enriched a book, as readers infer other meanings, and lends it historical context. “The digital revolution is a good thing for the physical object,” he said. As more people see historical artifacts in electronic form, “the more they’re going to want to encounter the real object.”"
My own experience with marginalia is rich, and funny, and dear, but one incident stands out in recent memory: reading the Dostoevsky novella, Notes from the Underground, I came across a note I had taken down in undergrad, in response to the Underground Man's comment, "Haven't you noticed that the most refined bloodshedders are almost always the most civilized gentlemen to whom all these Attila the Huns and Stenka Razins are scarcely fit to hold a candle[…]?"

My advisor was Finnish and crazy, and apparently had this to add to the discussion:
The huns… not a pleasant people.
I about died laughing when I found it during this second reading.  Even Dostoevsky can be funny, with marginalia kept in tact.

So any other marginal anecdotes out there? Am I in the minority, loving to mark up books and to read others' vandalism?

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