Thursday, July 14, 2005

Book Bubble

Jonathan Goodwin at The Valve might value books--the physical instantiations of books, I mean--a little too much. He writes:
Students (or professors) who write, highlight, and/or underline library books should have the words they so defaced scorched into their tissues with the aforementioned microwave device. As I understand it, no lasting harm will come from this, but the immense pain should serve as a deterrent.

Furthermore, you should not write in your own books. You will, at some point, die, and then what will happen to your books? Family may take them; they may end up at a Friends of the Library sale. Others will read them. And you have to realize that people studying your marginalia is, in most cases, unlikely. Just as you wish to preserve the environment for future generations, so should you preserve your books.

I'm with him, mostly, on the library books, but on personal copies? This isn't the early modern era; unmarked copies of my books are available, if my underlining annoys some future garage-sale shopper.

Jonathan gets off his best line in the comments: "Books use humans to reproduce, much in the manner of oaks and squirrels." This is witty, if somewhat misleading. Information uses humans in this way, but humans produce the physical containers of information, or books. And in the case of most books, human can always produce some more of them.

I generally frown on waste, so I get where Jonathan is coming from. If a reader writes all over a copy of a book, that a copy that might be less useful to the next reader. By this logic, that's a copy taken out of circulation that will have to be replaced, thus consuming resources just because one reader wanted to leave his or her mark. I get it.

I also get that Jonathan's post is not a little tongue in cheek and that I might look silly responding seriously to it. But I've worked in and studied books for most of my life, and I've heard variations on this argument long enough to know that non-notetakers--no matter how laughingly they put it--really can suspect marginalia-writers of o'erweening egotism.

So, two anecdotes about the positive value of marginalia, below the fold. [UPDATE: okay, not beneath the fold; Blogger is being a pain in the arse.]

1. This idea that in one's personal copy of a book there could be little value in note-taking is very strange. What about the personal value of marginalia?

When I was eight years old, I got baptized, and to celebrate my entrance into the world of culpability, my grandparents gave me a Bible. It's a rather nice edition of the KJT translation--leather-bound, with my full name embossed on it--published by Deseret Industries. It has a very, very handy index and glossary--and maps!--so I use it all the time, despite owning like four other editions/translations.

When I was 12, like a good Mormon, I decided it was high time I went through and read the whole thing. I did so with a green pen. Then, when I was 18 and was starting to have some theological doubts, I took a number of college classes in biblical scholarship and the Bible-as-literature. My marginalia from this period tends to be in blue. These days, almost all of my marginalia, in any book, is in black.

The point is that when I reach for my desk Bible, I have an extraordinary record of my reactions over time to the text. I encounter myself as a young, believing Mormon, and I encounter myself as a passionately skeptical undergrad. There's an immediacy to these notes that reincarnate periods of my life that I simply can't access in other ways. When I'm dead, maybe another reader would find this edition too "personalized" to be readable. By then, I'll have gotten so much value out of the palimpset of my marginalia that the cost of producing another Bible seems slight.

2. When family inherits a library from a dead reader, the marginalia might be worth more to them than it would to some anonymous used book buyer. If I had kids, maybe they'd be amused enough by my Bible to hang onto it--although they'd probably get another edition for their own reading.

My grandfather, the one who was in on giving me the bible, died rather suddenly when I was still young. I knew him well as a child relating to a grandfather but didn't get to know him as an adult relating to another. I'm not about to suggest that I got to know him by reading scads of marginalia, but there is one book that he annotated that has become something of a fond family legend. His copy of Moby-Dick has written at the beginning of every chapter either "yes" or "no" (or "skip it" or something like). "On The Whiteness Of The Whale"? Sure enough: "No!" Sisters, cousins, parents, aunts, we all know about Grandpa's copy of the book, and we all laugh about it and remember Grandpa's generosity with his own opinion. On a more abstract level, it places my grandfather in the camp of readers who think that Moby-Dick is an enthralling sea-yarn that Melville screwed up by shoving an encyclopedia in it. I disagree with this judgment but enjoy meeting my dead grandfather in the text in this way.

I have at least two copies of Moby-Dick--annotated, thank you very much--but I would love to have my Grandpa's as well. I would have a fair bit of competition for it, though.


Blogger Matthew Phelps:

Historians of ideas are grateful for margin notes.

I started to read Moby Dick expecting it to be something like a religious encyclopedia and was disappointed to find that it was only an enthralling sea-yarn.

7/14/2005 08:20:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Only an enthralling sea-yarn! Good Lord! What do you make of the "On The Whiteness Of The Whale" chapter, then?

My general take on Moby-Dick is that one can read it as an enthralling sea-yarn if one disregards all those chapters that my grandpa marked "no" to, but if you read those and take them seriously, the jury is out, way out, on what kind of a book it ends up being.

7/14/2005 10:08:00 PM  

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