Reading Around the Lines

“Then burst his mighty heart…then you, and I, and all of us fell down,/Whilst bloody treason flourished over us.”

“They always tell you to read between the lines. But have you ever thought about reading around the lines?” asked my professor, holding up his text.

“Do you see that? See the ink? Not the printer’s ink–my ink.”

The page did, indeed, appear to have been the victim of a raging Glopasaurus Rex attack.

“That is what I mean by reading around the lines,” he said, “that is what will help you to read well.”

And it’s true.  Writing in the margins has helped me converse with the author–and previous readers–about the text.  In gentle frame of the margins, I have learned to outline, comment, query, argue, agree, exult, and throw the occasional temper-tantrum. If there is one method that has helped me become a better reader, it has been the practice of writing in the margins.

It turns out that there’s an actual term for this phenomenon: marginalia.  (Delicious, isn’t it?  Language is a delightful thing.)  And not only is there a term for it, but there’s a discussion about it–and concern for its future.

You see, marginalia can only exist insofar as there are physical books (most e-book platforms provide rather impoverished, if any, means for the reader to make marginal notations), and the print book has been on the endangered species list since the dawn of the increasingly ubiquitous e-book.  Newsweek published its final print issue last month; is the print book headed in the same direction?

 A February 2011 NYT article, “Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in the Margins” has a title that conveys the general sentiment of its initial contents rather concisely.

The only thing about the article, though, is that it doesn’t end on the apocalyptic note that its title pronounces.  Yes, there is a digital revolution in books–but maybe we’ll be able to adapt our technology to include better means for inserting marginalia.  Shakespeare is not Newsweek.  I am not worried.

Besides, there will always be people who love physical books and intend to keep them in all their bound-and-printed–and marginalia-covered–glory.  “People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred,” says Joe Queenan in a WSJ article  excerpted from his One for the Books.  “Some people find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel.”

Marginalia may face a challenge in the digital age, but I do not think it is an insurmountable one. Yes, I am writing on a computer; and yes, you are reading on one. But look up for three seconds. Is there a book nearby?  Probably.  The closest book to me is a mere six inches from my elbow, a pen nestled between its ink-dappled pages.  Marginalia isn’t going anywhere; we don’t need to read between–or around–the lines to know.

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