Dirk Johnson's NYT feature on the dim future of marginalia rattled around my head for a few days until I came upon a sister piece. Sam Anderson wrote about wanting readers to be rolling around in the text. "[M]arking up books," writes Anderson, is "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:"
Today I rarely read anything -- book, magazine, newspaper -- without a writing instrument in hand. Books have become my journals, my critical notebooks, my creative outlets. Writing in them is the closest I come to regular meditation; marginalia is -- no exaggeration -- possibly the most pleasurable thing I do on a daily basis.
Writing marginalia never seemed quite right to me, so I took voluminous notes instead. Some books were only worth a single quoted sentence or a few paragraphs of copied text, while others required many pages. The act of copying the written word has led to the creation of a modern commonplace book (actually a collection of Word documents) that I can search through far more readily than the hundreds of books that have since been returned to various libraries or friends' homes.
Anderson writes later that "books are curious objects: their strength is to be both intensely private and intensely social -- and marginalia is a natural bridge between these two states." That's an excellent point, and one that need not be restricted to the physical instantiation of a book. My digital commonplace book is, unlike my home library, immune from fire, from weather, and from misfortune. If the thousands of books in my home were destroyed, I would still be annoyed by Augustine, intrigued by Russell, amazed by Jaynes, inspired by McDougall, puzzled by Pirsig, entranced by Feynman, daunted by Ginsberg, awed by Sagan.
Anderson has an "ultimate fantasy of e-marginalia [that]would be something like a readerly utopia:"
It could even (if we want to get all grand and optimistic) turn out to be a Gutenberg-style revolution -- not for writing, this time, but for reading. Book readers have never had a mechanism for massively and easily sharing their responses to a text with other readers, right inside the text itself. Now, when the Coleridge of 21st-century marginalia emerges, he should be able to mark up the books of a million friends at once.
See here for a selection of Anderson's marginalia