Using a Book

Yesterday the Los Angeles Review of Books posted a book review by Dustin Illingworth that speaks to how readers annotate books. With a nod to one of my favorite book historians, Carla Mazzio, Illingworth points to the late-sixteenth century to make a distinction between reading and using books. Quoting from the first ever English emblem book, Illingworth explains that we must not simply read books, but also mark them to ensure we retain their lessons. Or, as Geoffrey Whitney put it in 1586:

First reade, then marke, then practise that is good,
For without vse, we drink but LETHE flood.

The river Lethe comes from Greek mythology. One of five rivers in Hades, it symbolizes forgetfulness and oblivion. It might also stand in opposition to truth. In other words, annotating what we read contributes to our ability to remember it and, thus, approach the truths contained in books. What makes reading insufficient? Whitney seems to suggest that reading alone is not critical enough an engagement with text. Annotation encourages—and documents—active thinking as opposed to passive reading.

Modern readers may have largely dissociated ideas of truth from the content of books. It seems that as industrialized printing made mass marketed books increasingly cheap, some people began to think of their content as also cheapened. The history of print makes visible how the material life of books grounds our intellectual engagement with them. For instance, Renaissance scholar Stephen Orgel argues that marginalia transformed from added value in the early modern period to a kind of vandalism in the late modern period (see below). “At what point did marginalia […] become a way of defacing [the book] rather than of increasing its value?” asks Orgel in The Reader in the Book. At the heart of his question about annotation is a concern with how media technologies shape our experience of reading.

We’ve been asking in class how our experience of reading has changed with the popularization of digital media. Annotation as a critical practice of engaging with text has not disappeared, we know, but it probably does happen differently than Whitney imagined. For one thing, much of what we read on screens is not easy to annotate. And those things that are easy to annotate may not be easy to save for personal reference. Taking notes in a book you own, for instance, is much different than annotating a poem on The different media create different experiences and produce different kinds of annotations.

As the course continues, I hope we’ll continue to wonder what it meant to look through Virginia Woolf’s personal library in search of a poem to annotate online. Does knowing she may well have annotated it change our appreciation of the physical copy? Is it possible to annotate a book today or only vandalize it? Is it possible to vandalize a digital text and, if so, how? We’ll revisit some of these questions when we get to the remix assignment.

From Oxford University Marginalia. Contributor notes the display of “incredible wit.” Cover image of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media featured on fuckyeahmarginalia.


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