When a beam of sunlight fell on her mother-in-law’s red hymn book, Heather Jackson rose from the couch to fetch it from the bookshelf. She and her husband were planning the late woman’s funeral, struggling to decide upon the perfect hymn.
What she found was decisive. In the margins of All Things Bright and Beautiful, her centenarian mother-in-law had inked a request: “I want this hymn, all verses.”
“It was a message from the grave,” said Prof. Jackson, an English professor at the University of Toronto and author who, as it happens, spent two decades harvesting and analyzing marginalia — those notes, like the one scrawled in the hymn book, that we write in the margins of text.
“I’ve compared these notes to a message in a bottle: You send it out to the world, and it takes its chances, but it will reach somebody else,” said Prof. Jackson, who edited four out of six volumes of marginalia by prolific annotator Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet and philosopher credited with coining the Latin-derived term
I love this story for so many reasons. Those who know me will know my interest in churchy things, and will know also that I sing in a choir and might also know how much I love that particular hymn (it was one we wanted for my daughter's wedding service). And then, trained as a librarian, there is my interest in things bookish and also in the technological changes affecting books and libraries. All these topics are involved so it would be a surprise I suppose if I wasn't intrigued by this article!
How wonderful that this woman braved the relatively recent taboo about writing in books. Rarely now would you find a book with annotations unless it was a student's scrawl or underline in a textbook. (Don't you love the student's F___yew comment? Why Professor Jackson said he "shouldn’t have done that" baffles me. )
I thinks book used to be considered so valuable that it was not conceived of that they would be given away; it was thought they would be inherited. I have quite a collection of old books from not just my father's time but from generations before that and occasionally there are are few notes written in (usually in pencil) and so I know from experience the thrill one gets from that glimpse into the mind of someone long dead. The only thing that compares are old letters which I also have but there the literary connection is missing.
I have fallen into the political correctness of not writing in books, but in our book club, where we read books and discussed them, I made notes on what I read in a reading journal and these might count as a sort of marginalia as some of the comments were very specific. And I still make notes on some of the things I read occasionally - but not in the margins. Would some descendant find those scraps of interest if they came across them in the mass of material I leave behind? Are my blog posts somewhat similar?
I am excited by the thought that technology will allow us to annotate books again. I hadn't really thought of it but I can see how easy it could be done.
e-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook allow owners to underline passages and write annotations in pop-up windows, it is unclear whether readers will ever be able to share those marginalia and whether those notes will be preserved for generations to come.
“The reality is that I’m not going to wait for them to do it,” said Bob Stein, a publishing pioneer who is working with a handful of others to launch an online reading platform called SocialBook, which he hopes will allow readers to swap, say, Warren Buffet’s annotations for Thomas Jefferson’s and so on.
Mr. Stein said he is committed to ensuring that marginalia are preserved and portable — and not just from the Kindle to the Nook today, but from the e-book reader to some device not yet imagined.
Looking forward to that. Which reminds me, I need to start by getting a Kindle or something similar.