There is a wonderful little homage on writing in the margins by Laura Miller (@magiciansbook) in Salon. This article is full of anecdotes and incidents which highlight that “the ghost of that earlier reader” does not “deface” the book (even, or perhaps especially, the library book).
My favorite quotes from this article:
To enter into a battle over the truth with the author
“We have too much respect for the printed word, too little awareness of the power words hold over us”
“There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text”
“Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable” (Tim Parks)
To remember where one once started this adventure of life (and reading)
“‘rereading a book and encountering the notes you wrote there decades ago can be,’ Parks observes, ‘a vehicle for self knowledge’.”
“Or you might even relive an epiphany from your youth.”
To converse with gone beloved ones
“I once met a woman who had inherited her late, beloved grandmother’s library of heavily annotated fiction and nonfiction books. She said that reading them was like being able to talk with her favorite grandparent again.”
To have a book club like discussion
“The two of us had very different ways of reading the same text, but in that we were like all readers everywhere. Each reading is, in its own way, the creation of a new book.”
And then there is the reading of marginalia famous authors left in books of other famous authors (e.g. T.S. Eliot’s marginalia when he was reading Edmund Husserl 1914 in Marburg; my favorite from his comments is: ‘“es sollte überhaupt Kuchen geben” (there should always be cake)’). Marginalia which, later, become of interest to research. (Miller refers to a story in The New Yorker by Lauren Collins who writes about the Oxford University Marginalia group on Facebook.)
And what do librarians do?
Despite the discursive, psychoanalytical, consoling, and cultural values marginalia provide, librarians are very reluctant (to say the very least) when it comes to scribbling marginalia in library books. But why so? Do we really assume that our students are mostly morons, not worthy to be remembered or talked to in a couple of years? Let’s assume our students do indeed have something to say and, maybe, even become famous in the future. Then we would be grateful to have a very unique print of an otherwise really boring textbook!
All these conversations are going to be lost in the digital age. Marginalia in eBooks are aesthetically boring mimicries of sticky notes (though not limited by narrow margins — Fermat could have left his proof, given he didn’t want to add a sketch!) and can, thanks to stupid DRM, not be passed on to others.
Maybe we should buy more print books for our libraries, encourage writing in the margins, and thus turn libraries into real maker spaces?