Suspend Your Disbelief

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Marginalia and the e-reader


Image credit: Flickr - margolove

Partway through his essay on marginalia, Sam Anderson tells the story of lending a friend his copy of Infinite Jest—complete with his own annotations—then borrowing it back partway through:

The fresh one, she told me afterward, felt a little lonely by comparison: she missed the meta-conversation running in the margins, the sense of another consciousness co-filtering D.F.W.’s words, the footnotes to the footnotes to the footnotes to the footnotes.

On our wedding day, my husband received a copy of Infinite Jest from his childhood friend as a wedding gift, complete with dogeared pages and scrawled marginal notes. “This book,” said my husband’s friend, “changed my life, and I want you to have my copy.” It occupies a treasured spot on our bookshelves, not just because of the book itself but also because we have a running record of, as Anderson puts it, “the sense of another consciousness co-filtering D.F.W.’s words.” That particular copy is a moment-by-moment record of our friend’s reckoning with Wallace.

We’ve talked about marginalia before and what may happen to it in the digital era. Most writers focus on the possible loss of annotations if (or as) print books fall out of favor. But Anderson’s unbridled passion for annotating books is infectious, especially when he says things like:

[Marginalia] quickly began to feel, for me, like something more intense: a way to not just passively read but to fully enter a text, to collaborate with it, to mingle with an author on some kind of primary textual plane.


Writing in [books] is the closest I come to regular meditation; marginalia is — no exaggeration — possibly the most pleasurable thing I do on a daily basis.

You might think he’s exaggerating, but take a look at his actual annotations, as provided by The Millions. Anderson sees a more hopeful future for those marginal notes:

Digital technology, rather than destroying the tradition of marginalia, could actually help us return it to its gloriously social 18th-century roots. […]

[I]n the world of e-books, marginalia would be purely value-added, appearing and disappearing at the touch of a button. It would be like the option of watching a film with the directors’ commentary — a nice bonus but also easy to ignore. And it would allow a whole new wave of readers to discover the pleasure of the words in the margins.

Is there hope for marginalia and ebooks, after all?

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