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.
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.
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!