Sunday, 7 February 2010

Sunday Salon: Writing on the Page

The Sunday Salon.com

I started writing my response to this post on my Facebook profile but I felt I could squeeze a blog post out of it. For the link-phobic, the article concerns the issue of unrelated marginalia. The author goes beyond annotating the text to using a book as a temporary notepad (repository?) of their immediate thoughts. One such tale includes a scribbled note to phone someone. Now they cannot remember why they needed to contact this person but it remains a constant reminder of a point in their life.

Sometimes I am not sure where I stand on annotated books. Books have always been precious objects to me. In primary school I lent a so-called friend pristine copies of my Roald Dahl books to read in class. Two months they came back, tatty, dog eared, one cover even ripped. Even now, that moment when she handed my prized possessions back to me still brings a small lump to my throat.

Then I started university and had a massive reading load to battle with. Luckily I could afford to buy most core texts but still refrained from writing in the margins; preferring to make my notes on paper. Then I got a Sociology teacher; probably one of the best teachers I have ever had. Her class had a mouthful of a title (Titles of Comparative Sociological Thought and Theory, to paraphrase) but she had taught a previous class in Sociological Theory that I had been rather impressed by. I signed up and went to the first class. There the teacher said it would be "extremely" helpful to annotate the texts that we were studying. "Bring a pencil, do it in pen, use those colour tabs, anything! Even buy a cheap second hand copy," she told us. Now, one problem I have with annotation is that I have big, messy handwriting. On an average line of paper I maybe fit five-six words; less if I'm in a lecture and writing fast. So I took a deep breath and got my pencil out. To make a confession, I rather enjoyed it. The text I remember most was Persian Letters by Montesquieu. My copy is still somewhere in my mountains of books and has notes scrawled all over it. It makes me happy seeing them; reminding me at one time I loved and enjoyed studying Sociology.

However I have not continued annotating every book I own. My reading taste is dominantly contemporary fiction and I enjoy analysing in my head, as I go. Sometimes I annotate a text for studying (if my camera hadn't died I would have posted one of my course textbooks that has a forest of colour tabs growing out of it). I especially enjoying doing so to printed out journal articles. But I would never do so with a library text. It still narks me when I get a book out the library and someone has left their notes written in the text. Or, worse, highlighted passages. It's very distracting if I'm reading the same text but for different purposes.

At the same time, my stance seems hypocritical when you consider my Bookcrossing habits. For those who don't know, Bookcrossing is a website that tracks books. When you register a book, it is given its own unique tracking number called a BCID that needs to be written or recorded on the book. You can simply write the number on the book or stick a bookplate into the book that captures the same information. A lot of Bookcrossers have similar feelings to mine. "You want me to do what to my books? Write on them, stick labels in them, good Lord!"

A theme that keeps cropping up on my course is the sanctity of the text, or specifically, the printed book. As a potential archivist, it is part of my job to look at objects, manuscripts, notebooks, journals, anything to assess its uniqueness and importance for future study. Take your bog standard printed book, Mass Paperback by A.N. Other. Typically it will not be accessioned by an archive. But what if this book belonged to Barack Obama in his student years and, being the rebel he is, coated the book in his own annotations of his thoughts and feelings? In that example it is the information that matters, not the medium it is recorded on.

In an attempt to conclude, I am not promoting the mass annotation and defacement of books. Even in this 'age' of the e-book, many readers still favour the interaction with the physical object of the book; the touch of the page, the smell, the spotted front cover. Shared texts should not be actively annotated. For a new reader, this can interrupt their interaction with the text, that wonderful feeling of entering a new world that books open up. But for your own personal collection? Go wild. Annotate, highlight, scribble. Alas I will not be joining you (she of the messy handwriting) but I wish you well and God speed.

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