Conversing with Digital Texts? « Once & Future

Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

March 18, 2009

Conversing with Digital Texts?

There’s a lot of fuss and bluster in book circles about digital book technology like the Kindle which I am not going to weigh in on in any serious way because I have not actually ever handled an ebook reader and I am not entirely sure what capabilities they do and do not have. That said, I was sorting my books yesterday (something which happens on a semi-regular basis, as it brings me great pleasure) and wondered how I would replace my written “tags” if I were to convert for whatever reason to an entirely digital library.  The Kindle has a little keyboard on the bottom, I see; while my mother confesses to printing out pdfs of texts in order to annotate them.  Neither of these solutions entirely appeals to me.

Most diligent readers keep track of their thoughts on a text as they read. The most common habit these days is to keep notes in the margins of a book, creating a gloss to the text that is referred to as “marginalia”. I find attitudes towards marginalia vary significantly between readers.My own opinion is that unless you are or are intending to become Samuel Coleridge that you should keep your notes in a book to a minimum, but my squeamishness towards defacing books doesn’t seem to be shared by the legions of bold, ballpoint-pen-bearing readers that populate, especially, academic libraries. Yes, the marginalia of great readers and writers can be fascinating, and a source of some really excellent criticisms on a text. But I can’t stand the unintelligible scribblings of former readers scaring my book’s pages, and I do future readers the favour of keeping my opinions out of their text as well. But that’s just me.

That isn’t to say that I don’t keep conversation with my books. I waver between two techniques, though one is more of a bad habit than the other. The first, the bad habit, is to note my commentary on little scraps of paper that I leave marking the pertinent page. Many of my books are marked with enough of these little scraps that they look like they’ve got little paper pigtails. This leaves my books clean, and certainly helps me find important pages quickly. But unfortunately my notes also tend to slip out of their books, leaving important passages forever lost. I spent too many hours out of last month trying to find a quote from Robertson Davies on the importance of reading Dumas to young boys that I *swore* I’d marked. This is, however, something which margin-scribblers must struggle with as well. Knowing you’ve seen something somewhere isn’t enough of a roadmap to finding a note in a library of books.

The blogger's A sample tag from same.

My other habit is to keep a notebook at the ready while I am reading, my loci communes. This is an old practice with pedigree and some wonderful perks. Not only can you look back to what you were thinking when you read a book, but you can organize your notes however you like – perhaps keeping a section for favourite quotes, another for future writing ideas, or collections of information pertaining to specific subjects. Writing an essay on Emerson? Maybe you’ve been keeping a notebook of thoughts and quotes pertaining to Emerson, that roadmap to your library. But open-ended organization of your thoughts isn’t the only benefit, nor is the fact that your books will stay fresh and clean. These notebooks become wonderful additions to your library.

The blogger's loci communes.Interior (blurrily) of same.

Me, I am a sucker for snazzy little notebooks. I’ve been drawn to blank notebooks ever since I was a kid. They were pre-bound novels in potentia. A story handwritten in a notebook was automatically a published book, thought eight-year-old me. And weren’t spell books in all the stories just handwritten books of arcane recipes? These days I buy notebooks with almost as little restraint as I buy books because Toronto seems to be overflowing with talented paper artists. I’m especially partial to these little numbers: notebooks made from recycled old novels. Even a dedicated book hoarder like me has to admit that there comes a time in a book’s life when it has no future except in the recycling bin – but wait! I’ve seen these journals called “upcycled journals” – you can even get ones with old board games (Scrabble, anyone?) or VHS slips for covers. How cool is that?

Maybe the biggest perk of my loci communes is that, in any future ebook apocalypse, they remain useful and relevant. The electronic versions of marginalia and tagging still have their shortfalls over the real thing. Scanning a book for the visual cues notes and tags offer becomes difficult. Search functions rely on memory, rather than aid it. And does an electronic scroll have the margin space available for good notes? Perhaps they could (or do?) offer a function to watermark notes over the text – hell, they could allow you to save the annotation as a separate file to overlay any copy of your book. Torrents of professional annotation, anyone? Forgeries of celebrity marginalia? There’s leeway for some interesting speculation here.

But none of it makes me feel quite as secure as knowing that, in the event that I were trapped in a world with only an ebook reader and a good craft fair circuit, I could still furnish a library of worn cloth covers, good paper and sewn bindings, filled with the memories and impressions of a lifetime of reading.  It certainly beats sheafs of unbounded printed pdfs!

11 thoughts on “Conversing with Digital Texts?”

  1. Brian Kennedy says:

    I share your distaste for margin scribblers, Charlotte; they have little respect for the look, smell , or even the sound of good books. Mom’s PDF solution to reflecting on what you’ve just read goes a little too far and sounds like a waste of paper.
    I, too, like the little, ruled notebook, but lack your organizational skill, I’m afraid. My notebook pages fill up (in not even chronological order) with a melange of reading notes, deck plans, bank account numbers, and grocery lists.
    But, you’ve inspired me. I’ll try to be a little more ‘loci’ and a little less ‘commune’ in future. What are your notes on the Davies biog?

    cheers,
    Brian

    1. Charlotte says:

      What are your notes on the Davies biog?

      None yet, I’m afraid – I’m only a few pages in. But I just *adore* Robertson Davies, so I anticipate a quick, satisfying read followed by a lot of gushing. 😉

  2. Susan says:

    I am a margin-scribbler on my own books but not on ‘public’ volumes. Why not take Brian’s notebook approach with a book you are engaging with? Little pencil notes and pictures that create in a nice, multi-layered feel to the book. It personalizes it rather than treating text as temple. So 50 years from now some descendant will get a sense of wonder about the book and my reactions to it. And perhaps add on their own layer.

    Susan

  3. Janet ap says:

    Charlotte – I am looking forward to reading more of your blog entries.

    I like your mom’s comment about descendants reading books their kin readand personalized with notes.

    Luke, Maggie and William’s father was an avid margin scribbler. I kept all of Ron’s philosophy texts and volumes, and now William uses them at Trent.

    One of William’s favorite discoveries of his father’s margin “work” is in a Kierkegaard volume, ( I don’t know the name), where K’s famous “leap of faith” is depicted with a wee stick man drawn in the bottom right hand corner of every page, so that that when the book’s pages are flipped, the little stick man is animated and leaps.

    Janet

    1. Charlotte says:

      That’s a wonderful example of “good” marginalia! I shouldn’t be so hard on the practice, I guess – there’s certainly something lovely about a shared book. I think I’d just prefer not to have to “share” with generations of sleep-deprived undergraduate students! 😉

    2. Susan says:

      Love this story. Your comment makes me think of cookbooks. Wonderful place to find layered notes – the older the better. Advice from some woman long ago in scribbled handwriting.

  4. JK says:

    I’ll confess I do write in the margins, but as unobtrusively as possible, and ALWAYS in pencil. Pen (or worse, highlighter!) in books makes me feel a little nauseous. I find I’m much more likely to go back to a book that I’ve written in – it’s a sign of greater engagement and it’s easier to find things. I think what you piece of paper treatment needs is the post-it approach.

    And I like your notebook idea – I generally use the blank pages at the back of books for more extensive notes (in pencil of course) – they’re always easy to locate!

  5. phill says:

    Unlike everyone else that’s commented, I’ve never made notes on a book. Actually, that’s not true, I’ve taken notes from books, but they’ve all been physics or maths equations so I don’t really count them.

    But during recreational reading I’ve never even considered taking notes. I’m curious as to how it affects your ability to ‘lose yourself’ in the book? Or are we talking purely non-fiction here?

    1. Charlotte says:

      I certainly take notes on fiction and non-fiction – though you’re right, in fiction I don’t always “come up for air” as often as I do in non-fiction. 🙂

      I take two types of notes while reading fiction: quotes or good phrases I want to save for reference (like my copy of Salman Rushdie’s Shame has a little note at the quote: “To unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words.”) but also side-ideas I’ve had while reading. Sometimes a book will inspire me to write a story (or a blog post, *coff*) of my own on some tangent, and I have to stop and take a note of it or else I’ll forget the idea forever….

      1. phill says:

        Ah okay, I see what you mean. I just thought it would break the spell if I were to be thinking in parallel about impressions of things I should be writing down. But the idea of jotting down ideas for stories or blog posts is a good one–I’m currently re-re-re-reading the Sandman in its Absolute format, so I know the story off by heart, but it might be nice to analyse/annotate it a bit (although the web is already full of analysis on that series, still, a personal one wouldn’t be a bad thing).

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