Sunday, November 7, 2010

Writing about writing in books

Ain't nothin' new under the sun. I'm discovering that writing about writing in books, while new to me, is not new per se. But it has been referred to as one of the most dynamic new fields of study about book history.

I now have two books in my library that deal with the subject of writing in books: Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books, by H.J. Jackson (Yale, 2001) and Owners, Annotators and the Signs of Reading, by various contributors (Oak Knoll Press and the British Library, 2005).

These titles are scholarly studies (this blog is not, but this blogger is fascinated with the subject!) of primarily antiquarian books and examine the reading culture of the day through the annotations left behind by those affected enough by the material to do so. One of the goals of such research is gaining an understanding or better perspective of the context in which readers throughout history have interacted with contemporary writing. Such insight can lead to a deeper understanding of book-trade history.

As books enter the digital age, rendering obsolete the marginalia and annotation of texts, this academic research may also inform us about what we have already lost in our culture and portend what we stand to lose.

Jackson's book, Marginalia, is hailed as a "pioneering work--the first to examine the phenomenon of marginalia." Having only read the author's Introduction to this book, I can say that I like her style of writing with bits of humor and use of modern culture for frames of reference. Jackson's writing feels more accessible than the more formal conference papers of the other book mentioned. Her book has the better chance of the two in reaching a broader audience, but both are still concerned with a very narrow field of academic research.

Conference essays comprise Owners, Annotators and the Signs of Reading. The papers are from then 26th annual conference on book-trade history, held in December 2004, at Swedenborg House in Bloomsbury and, for the last time, at Birbeck College. H.J. Jackson, author of Marginalia, is also a contributor to this book.

This book's Introduction includes a paragraph that starts "How books should be read..." I stopped right there and got my pencil out. Instant recall from 10th grade English class made me do it. If I don't remember anything else from that class, I'll always remember Mrs. Brennan saying to her students more than 35 years ago that she could never read a book without a pencil and she encouraged her students to do the same thing. Write in the margins, underline passages, annotate. And so I reread the Introduction with a pencil in hand and noted my thoughts in writing.

One passage that puzzles me:
Annotation is likely to be, in all periods, a vital clue to the reader's thought processes in the mysterious act of reading.
I underlined mysterious and added a bit of marginalia with a question mark and suggestion of the word artful instead. There is a science to reading, surely, but in the context of this book and field of study, it seems that the art of reading, with respect to reader reaction and interaction with the text, is what yields the greatest insight to cultural and book history. Perhaps I don't understand the context in which the author views reading as mysterious. I'll have to give that one some more thought and annotation.

In addition to the books I have found on the subject of writing in books, I have also found various sites on the Internet that deal with the subject in one way or another. And all these sources give new meaning to the phrase Reading and Writing.|level=3-4|pageid=3221-4329

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