A Meditation on Marginalia
Twice this week I've been reading (The Flaneur if you must know) and been approached by strangers curious what I was reading that I made notations in the margins. They were of the opinion that if I was reading a book AND making notes it must be IMPORTANT. They confusion grew when they discovered that I was reading for pleasure. I generally read with a pencil in my hand (or a pen w/ post it notes if it's a book I truly love) regardless of whether the book is for a class I'm teaching or a novel I'm enjoying. This habit was reinforced by graduate school, but it interests me that so few people understand WHY I would write notes in a book that I am reading for pleasure.

Part of it goes to my attitude towards reading, which is that it is NOT a solitary pursuit, it's actually a conversation between the reader and the author. Reading itself is a CONSTRUCTIVE act, not passive like watching TV. While reading, even the most craptacular hackneyed romance novel ever, the reader must take the words on the page and create a mental image. These words that describe characters and action can become so influential, as a result of this collaboration, that readers will sometimes react as if the fate of the character has befallen a close friend or a real person. The clearest example of this is the Sherlock Holmes museum in London, which is supposed to be his house even though he was the fictional creation of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Film versions of books often fail to entertain those who have read the book first because the reader has imagined the scenarios and characters using their own biases and tastes, thus the invention is uniquely pleasing to them. A film, on the other hand, while created by hundreds of people-is a more general vision, trying to please a wide variety of tastes without the benefit of being customizable.

A movie, however, demands attention for about 2 hours, a book may require not only far more time, but also more involvement by the reader depending on the difficulty and sophistication of the text. Some books absolutely require multiple rereads or even sentences to be read again and again. A friend of mine felt this way about the work of Jacques Lacan. Thomas Mann claimed his 700 page novel about a tubercular colony, Magic Mountain, should be read twice. Once to get the general plot, and the second time to appreciate its nuances. As a professor, I often have to read the same books over and over again-thus I've read some works like the Inferno, the Iliad, the Odessey, and Antigone so many times I've lost count. Even other professors have remarked on why I would take the time to reread these works each time I taught them instead of just skimming notes. I did it, mainly, because each time I read these works I experienced them differently-gained new insights or changed previously held theories. If I simply skimmed my notes, my understanding of the texts would remain static.

So considering the personal and yet collaborative nature of reading, marginalia seems like a natural outgrowth. When people borrow my books, they often remark on the entertaining nature of the marginalia even though I never intended for others to read it. For me, there is something amusing about reading my own marginalia to see how my opinion has evolved over time. Some of my books have several sets of notes taken in different ink (most notably Lolita, which is a book that DEMANDS more than one read) which allows me to see and understand how my ability to interpret and analyze the literature has changed over time. Some of my books bear marginalia from a high school age Bunni, which is both embarassing and mildly endearing. But it seems clear that the idea of reading and writing being linked developed in me quite early.

So I'm a bit perplexed by this surprise by marginalia. Part of what shocks me is considering how interactive writing on the internet is-facebook statuses, tweets, and blog posts can all receive comments-that this passion for commenting hasn't carried over to printed texts . In fact, a book, Zero Comments , proclaims blogs are "driven by an in-crowd dynamic in which social ranking is a primary concern. The lowest rung of the new Internet hierarchy are those blogs and sites that receive no user feedback or 'zero comments'." (Making this blog lowman on the totem pole (sniffle). Since written feedback is considered so key to these social sites, why isn't reading a book considered as interactive as a facebook status?

The key difference is that while I can write what I like in a book, I do so without the expectation that anyone will read it. In fact, the intended audience of my marginalia is me-whether it's notes for a future a lecture or the title of a poem I will to research in more detail. The intended audience for comments on facebook and twitter is the whole online community. Thus the real surprise, or lack of understanding, comes from people unable to understand the effort of writing comments that aren't intended to garner praise, attention, or a response. The idea that these comments are for me (and my students often respond this way when they see me reading with a pencil in hand) is "What's the point?" Of course, to me, I can't quite wrap my head around the question well enough to answer it. On the surface there might not be a point. I may never read the book again. (I do have quite a few well annotated books that I have not reread...yet.) But I don't consider the time I took to write the comments wasted. Partially because the comments may have helped me develop my thoughts more coherently, but mainly because one of the chief joys of reading is feeling in communion with the author. The comments are the outgrowth of that collaboration.

It saddens me that so few people write marginalia. Growing up I lived by a Paperback Trader (it was literally up the hill from my house so we walked there often in the summer). I love owning previously owned books, a book with its own unique history, but it's always a delight to find something left behind by the previous owner(s)-a ticket stub, a news article, a postcard used as a bookmark. Even more interesting are their marginalia, even if it's in such abbreviated short hand that it makes no sense. I don't know why it intrigues me, but it's lovely to have some sort of connection with the previous owner. A link between the two of us who have both shared this physical book even though our experiences of it may be radically different. And, as a result, I miss the Paperback Trader and the days when I used to prowl the bins outside of the Strand for hidden treasures.

On one level, I fear the day of Paperback Traders has gone (the one by my house went out of business despite the fact that it was located ACROSS THE STREET FROM UCONN CAMPUS and had a wide selection of cheap textbooks) as has marginalia. Still, I shall continue to sit in the park, on the bus, and, of course, in bars-pencil in hand scribbling a response that no one but myself could be interested in.

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