Writing on and Writing in Books

January 25, 2024

One of the joys of libraries is that we get to find the irritating, useless, and occasionally helpful marginalia left by previous book borrowers. But now, a lot of books we get are digitally held, and we download a pdf or, when we’re unlucky, an epub. Recently, I downloaded one from the library. On the table of contents page, there’s a little icon of a sticky note (it’s even bright yellow). When I click on it, it simply says “regards.” I don’t know if it’s an accident or has some technical meaning, but I like to think that someone is offering an oddly formal hello across the digital servers and databases.

With these digital copies, we feel so much more free to annotate, partly because these annotations will remain local and private. It’s so easy to highlight a whole page—why not? It’s not like you’re going to reread it. But wouldn’t it be great, too, if these annotations were uploaded back to the library’s servers? The next time someone downloads that pdf, they could be confronted with (if you’re like me) your crudely drawn x’s, your overzealous highlights, and your sticky note comments that offer insights such as “important” or “lol.” PDFs could handle more of this marginalia than a physical book. And they depersonalize it, without the particularizing aspects of handwriting or choice of pen.

And shared marginalia can be interesting, if not productive. Years ago, three friends and I passed around a copy of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud A Solitude, each annotating it in a different pen and different handwriting. Not too long after we finished this project, another friend borrowed the book and left it on a bench, apparently, so I’m actually a bit unsure of how the project turned out. And now I can’t reread that book, which I really love, because it just reminds me of that copy I lost. Maybe you’ll have better luck.

During the first couple years of grad school, I had the occasion to read Hortense Spillers’s fantastic essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” pretty much every quarter (and at least once a year since then). It’s not long, but you really get something new each time you read it. So in an effort to glean as much as I could, I decided to use and mark up the same pdf every time I read it, and now that document has ballooned in file size, but it’s one of the most valuable intangible things I own.

Book historians have gone to great lengths to teach us that books are tools that we use rather than disembodied texts—look no further than the pun title of William Sherman’s Used Books—and the same is true of our ebooks. Just because you no longer touch the text (although you are touching something, whether a computer, tablet, or phone) doesn’t mean you’re no longer using it. I feel like no library would go along with my scheme to force digital marginalia upon all patrons, but there are ways to think about the limits and tangibilities of digital formats besides just slapping some DRM on an epub (I hate you, Adobe Digital Editions), and something like a shared folder of annotated pdfs could be an interesting project. It would hardly be an optimized way to read or research (although, in this vein, some grad school cohort mates and I collectively produced an outline of the introduction to Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, in our first year, and it has served me well since then), but what could we learn if we treated our digital formats as formats, with all their messy, inconvenient, and shared experiences?

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