Somebody Underlined My Library Book

If this blog was actually about my life, then this post would address the reasons why I should not be allowed to travel while exhausted. But since it’s not, we’re not going to discuss that and just hope that the nice Lost and Found people at either JFK or LAX find my glasses.

No, this post is about books.

Copy Of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ Can’t Believe The Notes High Schooler Writing In Margins brought to you by the Onion.

And then there was this, which, I should note, I don’t expect you to read because it’s an open access book-length book: Debates in the Digital Humanities

But the latter’s approach towards marking readerly interest, in conjunction with the former and a burgeoning interest in marginal notes (especially after I, umm, wrote rather extensive ones in the library’s copy of Discourse Networks because that book was unfollow-able otherwise), got me thinking about one of the big lies of omission we tell in DH.

The digital turn and the ebook have given us unprecedented access to collaborative authorship. We can write books together in wikis and Google Docs, we can comment on works-in-progress and have our thoughts incorporated into the text, we can be a part of books in a way that was never possible before.

And all this is true. But the other thing that the digital book, especially the professionally produced book app, affords is the ability to systematically erase the presence of other people from the book. Or, to put it another way, the real innovation in Amazon’s annotation app is not that you can turn on most commonly highlighted phrases, but that you can turn them off.

For example, I bought a used copy of the Norton Guide to English Literature (the 6th edition, in case enquiring minds want to know) and it belonged to someone named Lauren who had apparently done some of the romantic poets and didn’t like underlining the actual poem, but would write the occasional observation in the margins about symbolism. Which is convenient, because I underline like crazy and only really take marginal notes on things when I’m teaching them. Or when I feel a sudden onset of sarcasm. There’s nothing like taking out your anger on a man who has been dead for nearly two-hundred years by calling him a hack in the margins of his own poems. (Don’t be too sympathetic, it’s not like Lord woe-is-me Byron needs more pity)

And yes, to a certain degree these marginal notes are more private; I’m certainly not reselling my copy of the Norton. But my notes are materially bonded to the text. You can see not-so-faint pink lines on the reverse of certain pages when I forget to use a ball-point pen. Whatever ends up happening to this particular book–this particular paper and ink and glue version of the text–my notes will be happening with it.

On the other hand, there’s the Kindle. Most of the time, I turn off popular highlights, because it disconcerts me. Even before I read the passage, I can see that other people had highlighted it and I find myself wondering whether it’s really that important. Even before I look at the actual words, I’m treating the sentence differently. And, if I decide it’s important, am I highlighting out of peer pressure or because I’m relying on the wisdom of crowds. Or would I have highlighted it anyway? I mean, the second most-highlighted passage of all (kindle) time is…

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

If you don’t know where that’s from you should go and look it up right now (especially if it’s still January 28th for you).*

But my point, wherever it went, is that unless I have a very good reason to do so, I will not look at the Kindle highlights.** And, if you think about it, that’s really weird. I can actually erase the presence of every other reader of the book with the push of a button. It’s like every book is a brand new hardcover whose covers have never been opened and whose spine has never been disturbed, much less made that satisfying crack that new hardcovers make (Half of you will agree with me about the crack, the other half will cringe). Except it lacks the tactile feeling of “new book,” the sense of anticipation that comes from being the first. Actual newness has a presence of its own, but this…this is just absence. Neither material newness nor the tracks of previous readers.

And the Kindle/iBook apps are actually the best of the proprietary/professional bunch. You can at least highlight and take personal notes in the book. Some of the book apps currently out don’t even allow you to do that. Oh, they invite engagement on social media and let you post what page you’re reading to your Facebook status or tweet your reaction to a line, but the book itself remains intangible. You cannot write in your book. You’d have better luck with a sharpie on the iPad screen.***

Take the Artscroll iPad app, for example. They’ve finally invented a version of the Gemara where you can’t write in the margins. The history of the Talmud is the history of marginal notations and taking advantage of every little space on the page, of trying to cram translations in between the lines of the text and writing out the arguments of the Tosafists because you know there’s no way you’ll be able to decipher it a second time. Given what digital technology is capable of, Artscroll could have allowed their users to completely personalize their Talmuds so that the text reflected not only what they learned, but how they learned. Instead, they lock it down entirely. You can’t even highlight the text. What you can do is turn on colors, so Artscroll highlights the different topics in the text for you.

This isn’t a full-fledged idea yet, but it’s something that’s been kicking around in my thoughts and that I will, hopefully, continue to poke at. What happens when we can no longer deface our books?


*For those of you wondering, the most highlighted passage is “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” It’s from Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. 13 of the 15 top highlights are from the Hunger Games trilogy. The other two are from Pride and Prejudice. Make of that what you will. (First conclusion: I’m not sure if this data is a representative sample…unless its a representative sample of Kindle readers who highlight things.)

**I have been known to turn them back on to crowdsource important sentences from critical texts because trying to remember which paragraph best encapsulates X’s theory and where it is in the book is an exercise in futility.

***The management takes no responsibility for anyone empty-headed enough to do this. Unless you do it as a work of new media art, in which case I want 10% of the profits.



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7 responses to “Somebody Underlined My Library Book

  1. Actually, the sharpie may rub off the screen. (I know it rubs off the screen protector. I’ve managed to get sharpie on there by accident once or twice.)

    • That’s surprisingly good information to know, in case I ever do the reverse of screen swiping (which is when you poke at or swipe on your computer screen and wonder why it doesn’t respond).

  2. This… honestly never occurs to me, because for all that I don’t care how battered, damaged, used, torn, *cut apart* (I have cut my copy of Strange/Norrell into three pieces for easier carrying around in my bag), or otherwise tattered a book is–so long as all the content is there–I never, ever, ever, ever, EVER write in my books. Not even my textbooks. I don’t like marginalia in my books, it completely distracts me and utterly spoils and taints and invalidates my own initial reactions to the book. Stripping a book of dustjacket, cover or even holding it together with binderclips is fine, it seems, but writing in it is too far, in my mind.

    It’s interesting to think about how important writing in books is, I never would have thought it had any importance at all, bc of aforementioned mindset. I’m put in mind of Word’s ‘comment’ function, though. You can turn off the ability to see those, or turn them back on–and they’re colour coded and so on, so I guess that’s the best of both worlds.

    Digitising books is one of my passions–in keeping with the ‘always have a backup copy in case the original gets set on fire or lost in a move’ thing that I have–and even typing this, I’m now spitballing ideas for how to include marginalia while preserving the option of reading it later or not at all. I think the ‘turn off’ feature is pretty useful, actually. Perhaps though the ‘turn on’ feature should be more customisable…. I’m not sure, I haven’t had a chance to actually use an e-reader yet.

    • The do-you/don’t-you write in books thing is always so interesting to me. Everyone I’ve spoken to not only has a specific practice of their own, but has a strong opinion about why they do the things they do.
      I had to teach myself to write in books, mostly because I grew up reading loads of library books and because the books we used in school belonged to the school, so annotating them was just obnoxious. For me, writing and underlining books has a certain undercurrent of “I don’t want to read this whole thing again, so I’d better note down what’s useful.” So it happens far more often when I’m reading non-fiction that I’ll need for reference…or fiction I don’t like. And now I get frustrated when I can’t underline to help me remember.
      I do have a tendency to keep two copies of books that I both love and have to teach–one is my reading copy and that one doesn’t have any notes in it. The other is my teaching copy and that has everything I want to discuss underlined.
      I really like the idea of hiding/revealing annotations. Especially for older books, with generations of marginalia, having it appear in chronological order would be awesome. You could recreate successive generations of reading experiences.

      • I really like the idea of hiding/revealing annotations. Especially for older books, with generations of marginalia, having it appear in chronological order would be awesome. You could recreate successive generations of reading experiences.

        Omg this is an amazing idea! I was thinking colour-coding with one colour for each different commentator (doubtless useful for marginalia on religious/sacred/philosophical texts, since that would lend context to the comments), now I’m thinking farthest back would be red, then orange, yellow, etc. so that the chronology was easily delineated by a natural progression of colour through the visible spectrum. Possibly having a few options in case of colourblindness of various types. Also, having the marginalia in a regular typeface (I like verdana at about 8pt for footnotes &c.) would make reading it very much easier for people with visual issues or such. I know the idea of an ereader with ‘digital paper’ is appealing to a migraine-sufferer like me, who can’t always handle a bunch of LCD glaring blue-white in my eyes.

  3. Yael

    Why does Amazon assume I want to see what everyone else has highlighted? Aren’t books personal? Don’t we all experience them differently? What is meaningful to you might not be meaningful to me. Of course in our culture of whatever I am thinking, feeling, doing, etc, must be of note to the rest to the world, I guess seeing everyone else’s highlights has meaning? Well, not for me. I am so happy that I leaned I can turn that highlighting function off. As to writing in library books, shame, shame, shame! As to writing in your own books, why not?

    • Consider me shamed.

      Which is not to say that I won’t do it again.
      I think there’s this idea of a “social” reading experience, where you can engage with other readers. See what other people like, share your thoughts and reactions with them. I can see the appeal…kinda, although it feels a bit like shouting into a void and hearing garbled voices echo back. But I agree with you that there’s a certain sense of “why do I care what you underlined?”
      Except people apparently do. There’s an entire website,, which is devoted to letting you quote and share passages of interest from anywhere on the internet and that you can link to your Amazon account to include highlighted passages as well. It’s like a 21st century commonplace book, only made public. (Although, fundamentally, isn’t the entire point behind Findings, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Facebook “I found this thing, you (all) should see it too!”)

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