Marginalia (by Liz Sandbach)

Let me begin this blog by quoting someone else:

“I have now discovered that making marks in books to show assent, dissent or just to highlight important passages was the norm rather than the exception way back in medieval and Renaissance times. In fact, educators of the time recommended that the best way to learn from a book wasn’t just to read it like we do now, but to physically mark passages, perhaps to stitch pieces of thread into the page to mark the important bits, or even to tear pages from the book itself: in other words, to use it as required and not just to read it, passively. We have evolved from a culture in which readers of the past literally took hold of texts for specific purposes, to one in which texts generally take hold of readers who may not be looking for anything beyond a good read.”

This fascinating peek into the history of book reading got me thinking about our modern relationship with books and how we read them.

First, let me hold up my hand and admit to writing copious notes (in pencil) in all my English Lit textbooks. And let me attest to the value of this for the learning process. But I have equally to admit that it’s never occurred to me to write comments in the margins of non-academic novels – although it may have alleviated the frustration that came from reading some of them: “If you can’t be bothered to edit it, why should I bother to read it!!” Or “You said four chapters ago that Stella had long, dark flowing locks; now she’s a blonde. Don’t you know your own characters, for f**k’s sake?” Or even, “I seriously think you ought to seek help!”

Nowadays, I suspect this ‘marking’ practice would be frowned upon as bad form and tantamount to defacing or vandalising books. Is this modern outlook just good manners or have we become far too precious in our relationship with books?

The author of the opening quotation also said that reading the marginalia “was like being in a book club of two but without the wine”. And I understand what he was getting at. Writing comments in a book creates a kind of ‘conversation’ – not only with the book’s author but also with future readers of the book who will discover your notes. I’ve come across some textbook marginalia that have presented me with a completely new perspective on a subject or specific passage. It changes the reading experience from being a solitary one to one where you enter the mindset of another reader and see another reader’s viewpoint. Surely seeing another person’s point of view can only ever be a good thing – widening our understanding and broadening our outlook.

So, what kind of reader are you? Do you dog-ear your pages rather than use a bookmark? Do you open out the pages and flatten the spine? Or do you prefer to keep your books as pristine as the day you bought them? I’m in the former camp and do like getting to grips with a book and am not afraid to batter it a bit. This may horrify some book-lovers of course – and each to their own bibliophile bent. But the one thing we must surely all agree on is that, for all their growing popularity, we can’t interact in that kind of physical way with e-books. And I think that’s why, for me, a Kindle will never replace the sheer joy of a paper book – even down to the lovely papery smell of it. Electronic may have its uses, but it probably would have horrified those medieval and Renaissance readers who made marks, stitched in pieces of thread, and tore out pages to carry away with them. And they’d be even more horrified by the librarian who added a caustic condemnation to the inside front cover of a returned book: “Systematically vandalised throughout by a reader, June 2010.”

 

Liz Sandbach, February 2018

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