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Project Proposal III: MKG

5 min read

Reading is sometimes conceptualized as an act of consumption. Writers produce, and readers consume. However, reading is its own form of production in some ways. The text is inanimate until a reader brings it to life in his or her mind, and from the text, the reader is often creating new ideas and answering new questions, set off by something in the work. The difference, then, between reading and writing is that writing leaves a physical trace-- writing produces an object that can be touched. The matter produced by reading is thought, which, for most of us in our daily lives, we cannot display.

Marginalia gets around the problem of these invisible results. Marginalia is a physical representation of the reader’s participation in the production of the work at hand, whether it includes brackets around a section of text the reader felt was important, notes in the margin recording a reaction to the text, or something completely unrelated like a shopping list written inside the cover. These marks serve as proof that this book was owned and used. We often conceptualize writing as a path to immortality, as authors seem to transcend their own times and live now in our present just as they did in the past, but that sort of immortality is accessible to readers as well through their marginalia. A physical trace of the reader carries forward in time, creating a sort of endless community of readers. An eighteenth century reader, a nineteenth century reader, and a twentieth century reader might all live in the pages of one of the books in END’s corpus. But the twenty first century reader has been denied access to that community due to the nature of rare books libraries.

For reasons that are seemingly obvious, rare books libraries do not allow their patrons to go around marking up the books in their collections. Eighteenth century marginalia is valuable to them, but anything added now might be considered vandalism. The libraries preserve these books, but in preserving them, do not allow them to be really read. The books can be looked at, examined, and studied, but not read in the way that they were once read. There appears to be no way around this. If the books are to be preserved, it seems we must be shut off from the community of readers. But why must the books be preserved? Our urge to preserve comes from a sense of the historical value of the books. From the perspective of a historian, they ought to be frozen in time, preserved exactly as they are in order to allow us to see, relatively unobscured, what the original readers were like. But in a purely literary sense, this might be an incorrect approach. Assuming these books are meant to persist is a big assumption. Perhaps books are meant to be used and used and used until they disintegrate into nothingness. We cannot possibly hold onto everything, after all. Perhaps books are like that couch that exists in many a mother’s parlor room-- no one is ever allowed to sit on it, making you wonder why she bought it at all. Perhaps there is more value in building the community of readers and allowing it to grow to include modern readers than in perfectly preserving the past. History is all a matter of representation anyway. What we know about the past may be no less fictional than what we know about Narnia. Why prioritize history over literature?

In this project, I would like to both explore the value of marginalia from both a literary and a historical perspective through an engagement with H.J. Jackson’s arguments in his book Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books, and experiment with different ways for readers to interact with eighteenth century texts. I would like to produce five physical copies of the 1791 novella The History of Laura and the Handsome Hermit and send them out to modern readers with instructions for them to mark up the text, take it with them on their daily travels, and generally live with it… I would also like to produce an electronic copy and have five readers annotate that with a tool such as hypothesis.io, and have five people (probably the END team, if they are willing) read the original in the Reading Room at Kislak and make our notes on separate sheets of paper, marginalia detached from the text. Using these examples of marginalia as case studies, and referring to the END corpus and its records of marginalia present in the books in our collection, I would like to examine and consider the various methods of producing marginalia and the what is lost and gained in each of them, while also considering why some marginalia is treated as a valuable addition to the book and other marginalia is viewed essentially as graffiti.