Perhaps you all know Mark O’Connell, since he writes at The Millions and the New Yorker’s Book Bench. The latter is where I found these paragraphs about reader marginalia. They begin by talking about Sam Anderson and his interest in marginalia:
This enthusiasm for an underpraised form of writing is infectious, and he makes a compelling case for marginalia-sharing as a means of giving readers’ observations more currency in the literary exchange. But I think he underestimates the extent to which most readers value annotations precisely because they are a private exchange between themselves and whatever book they happen to be talking back to. Personally, I get slightly edgy when people pick paperbacks off my shelves and flick through them; there’s something slightly mortifying about anybody else reading these earnest or facetious marginal interjections (“V. interesting, this!,” “Austen can really write!,” or “Sure, whatever, Wittgenstein ”)
The Kindle allows for electronic marginalia via the “notes” function, but it feels all wrong: something about having to call up a menu and type a note on the keypad, with its little stud-like plastic buttons, makes the whole process seem forced and contrived. Marginalia are supposed to be spontaneous and fluent. “Noting” something on a Kindle feels like e-mailing yourself a throwaway remark. There’s also something attractive about the contrast between the impersonal authority of the printed page and the idiosyncrasies of the reader’s handwriting. A book someone has written in is an oddly intimate object; like an item of clothing once worn by a person now passed away, it retains something of its former owner’s presence.
I’m delighted to see that these solid book history questions are getting such prominent play. And marginalia seems to be a hot topic lately, which also pleases me.
Perhaps it’s a mark of my age that I think she can't possibly be right about this. I mean, yes, some of the objections in the second paragraph—about the aesthetics of the contrast between print and handwriting and the aura of intimacy that marginal comments create—might be addressed in small technological advances or changes. And perhaps I'm like the old baseball men in Moneyball, who insist that there are “intangibles” for which the statistical study of baseball can never account. I hope not, as I think the case is pretty convincing that those old baseball men are wrong. But I can’t shake the belief that digital technology will never be able to replicate the feel of reading (and writing in the margins of) a codex.
There is an aspect of this question that takes me back to my previous post, about Paul Holdengräber and his document, a copy of Eco’s book that contains text not in my copy. Such used to be the case with marginalia: for most of the history of reading, reader-generated marginalia was unique to each individual document, because marginalia was produced by hand. Shared marginalia in manuscripts and printed books is common—what else is a footnote?—but it is rare once the book has left the scribe or printer. But it is possible with ebooks, now, to make marginalia travel from reader to reader. In gaining this interconnectivity, we might also lose something, something local, something rare, something individual, and, if not private, certainly not published in the traditional sense.
It is not that marginalia makes a document more of a document; it makes it a different kind of document. Perhaps it is a question of character. In Act 4 of Hamlet, when letters from Hamlet arrive and announce unexpected things to King Claudius, Laertes asks, “Know you the hand?” and the King replies, “’Tis Hamlet’s character.” Perhaps that is what I mean: reader-generated marginalia in codexes give the document character. I have trouble imagining the same for ebooks.