I love used books for many reasons, one being that I much prefer a slightly tattered hardcover to a crisp paperback fresh from the publisher. A substantial hardcover lays wonderfully flat on its side when closed, unlike paperbacks, which have the tendency to rest open-mouthed, as if in silent shock that they are not currently being read. Hardcovers handle the abuse of my daily life: bicycle commutes to work, two dogs, road trips, and the occasional foray into outdoor reading. Beyond aesthetics and resilience, though, is my love of marginalia, the little scribbles, drunken underlining, and vague notes that decorate the white (or yellowed) spaces of any book worthy of the title USED. I enjoy marginalia for a variety of reasons ranging from the utilitarian desire to take advantage of previous readers’ efforts to mark key passages and to distill the author’s work into central themes, all the way to an eccentric desire to use these markings as clues into the motivations and character of the book’s previous owner. I indulge my imagination, creating a work of fiction alongside the author’s non-fiction. I pay attention to every highlighted passage and puzzling notation, like the emphatic “divorce!!” scrawled alongside the text of my used copy of a collection of Walter Benjamin essays, and use them to create a caricature of the person who took the time to scrawl chicken scratch into the margins.
When reading, most of my mind focuses on the book’s primary narrative while, simultaneously, odd questions are being put forth in the back alleys of my brain. Why did the people before me read this book? What special knowledge did they hope to glean from its pages? What happened to the blue pen they used to annotate pages ii-57, disappeared for the subsequent 103 pages, then returned, unfazed, for the home stretch of Martin Williams’ Jazz Heritage? All of these speculations and hints mingle together and form into a secondary sub-narrative that lets me indulge my love of fiction while maintaining my ‘practical intellectual’ façade by reading a book about the history and causes of economic crises. All this is done while I simultaneously generate a third narrative about the motivations and conflicts of interest between the author and his subject matter. Why did he mention that LBJ was drinking a Coke before being notified of Kennedy’s assassination? Does he own stock in Coca-Cola or is he trying to advance an anti-soda campaign by associating Coke with gruesome head wounds? But marginalia are important beyond my ceaseless need to overanalyze everything. They provide an inter-reader and, often inter-generational, connection between individuals in a way that is becoming rarer in the digital age.
The practice of writing in the margins began when ancient critics wrote comments and reproaches on the edges of the author’s manuscripts. Reacting to the miniscule supply of paper, every spare bit of blank space was a valuable commodity. The printing press brought both books and marginalia to the masses, where annotation became a useful record for authors and intellectuals who wished to ensure that their notes and thoughts about a particular work were tightly bound to the book itself. Voltaire even wrote entire original works in the margins of books because it was the only medium available while he was imprisoned in the Bastille. The annotations of historical figures have always been highly valued, but it is the notes of more pedestrian sorts that intrigue me. My interests lie in the scribblings of a parent in one of their favorite books, found years later by a son or daughter perusing the family bookshelf.
Though each generation latches on to its own collection of important literary works, the great, important works remain a common ground between the generations. Something intangible will also be lost as society migrates further and further away from the printed word. An e-book contains the same words as a printed copy, and digital text also conveys the author’s message just as effectively, but lacks the ability to bear witness to the reader’s presence. No more dirty thumbprints and well-worn spines to signal that this particular book has been well and truly loved. Sure, you can highlight particularly moving passages or add annotations in perfect 12pt Times-New Roman to all the books in your Kindle app, but an unfinished e-book will never sit on a nightstand and pass withering judgment on how long you are taking to finish it. I don’t worry that future generations won’t have any of these little notes and mementos to remember us by; I fear that everyone who comes of age post-internet will end up leaving behind such a vast digital paper trail that subsequent generations will be unable to find anything meaningful within an avalanche of dross. Rather than finding a love letter tucked in an old book or a long-forgotten maple leaf pressed between the pages of an encyclopedia, only an infinitude of inane Facebook posts and pointless Tweets will be discoverable.
There is a palpable tension between written and digital records. Things written with ink on paper are easily lost, become more and more fragile with age, and are unbearably difficult to search through and organize. Things written with binary code on a hard drive are easily backed up, have a nearly infinite lifetime, and can be searched and indexed effortlessly. But all of these improvements come at a price; they dramatically lower the economic cost of creating each new text document or spreadsheet. When paper was rare, you had to think carefully about what you wanted to say and how you wanted to say it. In 1383 a scribe was paid the equivalent of 208 days’ wages to produce a single manuscript for the Bishop of Westminster. Now, there are websites where anyone with an Internet connection and a few spare megabytes can download the entire collected works of Shakespeare, Hugo, and Twain free of charge. Additionally, the cost of digital storage has fallen so swiftly that millions of individuals add every bit of daily minutiae to the permanent record without even a second thought about what effect it may have on their descendants’ ability to reflect on their thoughts and lives. We’ve reached a point in our cultural history where we will be leaving behind more evidence of our thoughts and experiences than ever before, but how much of it will truly be worthy of the immortality we are bestowing upon it?