Saturday, September 25, 2010

Book Marks

We didn't have many books in the house where I grew up, and because I couldn't afford to buy enough paperbacks to feed my science-fiction habit, most of my reading material came from the local library. It was modern, well-lighted, and amply stocked; when I had exhausted its science-fiction collection, I moved on to what we inside the genre call mainstream novels (starting, as I recall, with John Updike's Rabbit Redux, which hooked me because of the odd and arresting title, and the fact that it began on the day of the Apollo 11 moon landing). And it was amongst the mainstream novels that I first encountered tracks of the library-book annotators: readers who couldn't keep their thoughts to themselves, victims of a kind of literary Tourette's syndrome that compelled them to underscore words, sentences, and whole paragraphs, and sprinkle the margins with pointless exclamation marks and remarks.

It always annoyed me; always struck me as a pernicious form of vandalism. I valued books because they were an important part of my life and I possessed so few of my own. And besides, why should I care what strangers thought about the books I'd chosen to read? Their jotted egoblurts annoyingly snagged my attention, and were never interesting, polarised between so true! and utter rubbish! Accumulating my own library, it never occurred to me to jot my own thoughts in the books I owned. Even when I had a regular gig reviewing for Interzone magazine, I wrote notes on sheets of scrap paper as I went along, keyed to page and line, rather than scribble in the margins of review copies. So reading this excellent article about author's libraries and the value of annotation, has given me pause for thought. Can it be true that all this time I've been denying posterity the opportunity to peer into my thoughts? Why, I haven't even signed any of the copies of my own books that I keep on my ego shelves . . .


Anonymous Peter Erwin said...

Owen Gingerich's The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus is a fascinating story about trying to track down all the existing early editions of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus, with the aim of finding out both who (among various 16th and 17th Century thinkers) owned a copy, and what they thought about it, based on the annotations in the individual books.

(One of the color plates demonstrates that the habit some people have of massively underlining and/or highlighting every third or fourth sentence in a book dates back to at least the 17th Century...)

September 26, 2010 12:43 pm  
Anonymous Sergey said...

These words were founded in one Russian Medieval hand-written book.
They were adressed to the reader:
if you would leave marks in the book the demons would leave their marks with hot iron on your face in hell!

September 26, 2010 4:44 pm  
Blogger LarryS said...

Oh I hate that when you find a book with peoples marks in. My copy of Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama is ex-library and has a few such pencil marks! The thing is those books arent the reader's property-its kind of disrespectful of other people's property!

September 26, 2010 9:16 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Peter - now there's a detective story I should read. Cursory googling shows all kinds of incunabulae with annotations. Wouldn't be surprised if some cave art turned out to be annotated, too.

Sergey - Medieval Russian library police?

Larry - it's a classic problem of the commons, I guess. Like tagging trains and buses.

September 27, 2010 2:35 pm  
Blogger wufnik said...

Nothing new here, though. Michael Camille's Image on the Edge is a wonderful book about marginalia added by medieval copyists to the volumes they were copying and creating, some written, some pictorial.

September 27, 2010 8:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the first document in the Italian language, the so-called Veronese riddle, was written in the 8th or 9th century on the margin of a book.

November 06, 2010 2:43 pm  

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