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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Annotating Books

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Over at the New York Times, Geoff Dyer has been wondering about what readers do to books:
There has always been a lot of discussion about the effect that reading books has on us. Far less attention has been paid to the effect that we (the readers) have on them (the books). I don’t mean on the reputations or royalties of the authors who wrote the books but on the actual physical objects themselves.
Once a book is finished, readers will have absorbed into their own minds the information that the book alone once held. But the process of reading is not just a mental one, but a physical one, with readers marking a text as they go. They fold down corners, crease and buckle pages, spill coffee and tea, tear covers, and annotate in the margins. These are the archaeological imprints that turn any one book from being a collection of textual characters - one is reprinted identically in thousands of different editions or in a digital form - to being a unique object that is possessed by one particular reader. George Steiner wrote that an intellectual is someone who can’t read a book without a pencil in his or her hand. One can only truly know the contents of a book by engaging in a dialogue with it, marking its pages as one turns.

So does this mean that I am not an intellectual? Because ever since I have been studying literature professionally, I have rarely marked my books. I hardly ever annotate the margins, and at most I might fold down a page or put a sticky note to bookmark a relevant passage. On the face of it, it might seem as if I am a book fetishist. I respect the integrity of a book, and cherish it like a precious china tea set that can only be used once before being put away forever for safekeeping. So books sit neatly on my shelves, spines slightly broken from one reading, but otherwise unsullied by their encounter with me.

And yet precisely the opposite is the case: far from fetishising books, I treat them as mere tools of my trade.

I live in a small house. The only places I can store books are in two small two bookshelves and two boxes that can slip under my bed. My collection of books is limited to around 250 at any one time (I know this, because I diligently catalogue them using Endnote). My collection is thus less like a permanent record of my reading, and more like a transitional library reflecting my interests and needs at any one time. Many of the books on my shelves, for example, are those that I am teaching, or those that I need to read imminently. Once I read a book, if I do not think I will need it again I will pass it on to a charity shop, or take it to a book exchange. Books have a provisional status in my life. I may buy a particular text one day, but unless it assumes an unusual or practical significance, I will let it drift out of my house without giving it a second thought.

I rarely mark my texts, then, because they feel to me less like possessions and more like lent tools, temporarily passing through my hands so that I can borrow the words from the page, before the object itself journeys elsewhere. Always conscious that I might one day need to resell or donate my book to a new reader, I do not want to influence their first experience by requiring them to look at my marginal commentaries. As Jeff Dyer observes, whilst he is happy to mark books, he will never buy a book if it has been previously annotated.

But what of those books I choose to keep, and do not want to pass on? Besides those books I need for teaching, another factor that determines if I will keep a book is if it has been especially influential on me, taking a place in my affections or intellect such that I think I might want to read it again. Once I have given it a permanent place on my shelves, the elected book becomes a canonical giant in my necessarily small collection. Why not mark even these books? I think it is because I like the sense of secondary surprise that re-opening a once-read book entails. To mark a book the first time around (when of course I do not know whether I will ultimately decide to keep it or not) would be to risk conditioning my reading experience for any potential second reading. My adult self, re-reading Wuthering Heights ten years hence, might not want to remember my teenage self's hormonal identification with Heathcliff. My mature self reading Moby Dick for pleasure is not interested in the psychoanalytic insights my naive undergraduate eyes spotted the first time around. Marginal comments can distort the delicious uncanny that comes from re-reading a cherished book, its sense of familiarity but also newness, of things once seen dimly now seen in a different light.

Given the nature of my reading experience, the fact that I read books but rarely interact with them, one might imagine that I would be happy to venture into the world of e-books. If, for me, books as printed objects are transitional, then books as digital texts would be usefully ephemeral. They ghost freely through the internet or are beamed onto a Kindle, but can then be deleted as soon as their purpose is served. They do not need to take up any space on my shelves. I can digitally annotate a text as much as I like, whilst still having access to a clean copy. However, as yet I have been unwilling to get an e-reader.

This is partly for the practical reasons of my profession. Since many of my physical books are those I need to teach, and since students are asked to buy print editions, I need to keep hold of the same copies as they will be using. I could certainly use an e-book, but I would still need to own the hard copy as well.

The price of e-books is also a deterrent. Once you accept that you will only keep a book temporarily, rather than preserving it on your shelves for years to come, you become quite happy to buy whatever tattered, third-hand edition happens to lurk in Oxfam. You do not feel the need to splurge on a pristine £15 hardback because you know that you will want to archive it forever. And one needs to buy an awful lot of 99 pence paperbacks to make the economies work in favour of a £100 e-reader.

And, in part, I resist digital books because I take some pride in pruning my library. I have academic colleagues who have offices stacked with thousands of books. These unruly tumbles represent the fertile gardens through which their minds have roamed over many decades. But I guess as an intellectual I am neater, more selective. I own fewer books, but those books I do possess are the ones that I need to own. My small, neat bookshelves are an extension of my mind, trim and focused rather than wild and abundant. Every time I choose to send a book to a charity shop, I put a neat, privet hedge around an area of research or a writer that I do not want to pursue further, and this clarifies those areas and writers who I do want to survey some more. To look at my shelves is to reflect on my own direction and purpose, much as a writer's selected prose or poems summarise their literary life. But if I were to keep my collection digitally - with the unlimited storage of the internet - I would never need to do any of this sort of weeding.

So contrary to George Steiner, to read a book without a pencil in one's hand can also be a mark of intellect. Every time I take an uncut book from my shelves, I know that its ultimate fate will see it sent it to a charity shop, or archived in my selected canon. By not annotating as I go, I keep either option open: I can pass it on to a fresh reader, or will preserve the original text so that I can encounter it with clear judgement second time around. This process of evaluation is a serious one, a cutting Solomon's choice. I may not take in as much information as I would do if I was an active reader, marking and commenting in the margins as I go. But this misses the point. If a book is worthwhile, it surely does not just deserve momentary commenting - it deserves a complete re-reading, to absorb its ideas and characters for a second time, and in full.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:19 am

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