Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Reading and Marginalia

At a recent conference, I attended a presentation on Book Traces, a project originating at the University of Virginia that seeks to discover inscriptions and marginalia in 19th- and early 20th-century library books that help tell the story of the books' former owners or readers, and their responses to their reading. While I didn't find anything as dramatic as the examples highlighted in the talk, one quiet Friday afternoon I took an hour to explore the shelves of the library where I work and see what I could find.

I discovered a number of inscriptions, though most were of the "Merry Xmas from Aunt Katie" variety. One of the books was signed by its author, William Waldorf Astor. The most interesting thing I found was two copies of the same book by a once popular but now long-forgotten author, T.S. Arthur, that bore radically different marginalia within their pages. First published in 1854, "Ten Nights in a Bar-Room" was Arthur's most popular and best-known work, and tells the story of a tavern owner and his family, and the physical and moral decline of the family and community as a result of alcohol. It has the melodramatic and moralistic tone of much popular literature of the time, reminiscent of tracts forwarded by proponents of the Temperance movement. Though there is no information on who the readers of the marked up copies were, or during what era they read them, both felt compelled enough to comment and editorialize while reading the book.

The first reader seems to share Arthur's viewpoint on the evils of alcohol. On page after page, in red ballpoint pen, the reader has bracketed an underlined passages, particularly those that demonstrate the negative consequences of drink. Next to a passage that describes the bar owner being nearly beaten to death by a drunken mob, the reader has written, "eat his own bitter fruit."

There is evidence that more than one reader wrote commentary in the second copy, as one reader wrote a few notes in cursive in blue ballpoint pen, and another, writing in all capital letters in pencil, seems to have taken a more cynical view of the book's contents. He or she appears to be amused or irritated by the book's melodramatic tone, and can't resist making sarcastic comments next to certain passages. One paragraph, running two pages, ends with "But this is digressing." Next to this the reader has written "You ain't kidding!" When Arthur writes that "lazy fellows ... liked idling better than working", the reader adds "Who doesn't?" When the book's narrator, on his seventh visit to the tavern, declares, "This is no place for me," the annotator agrees, "It certainly isn't!" 

One thing noted in both copies of the book was a continuity error of Arthur's. Slade, the tavern keeper, loses an eye in the aforementioned beating. But on page 267, Arthur describes Slade as "sitting at a table, alone, with his eyes wandering about the room." The first reader comments "I thought he had only one" and a reader of the second simply underlines "eyes" and adds a question mark in the margin.

Both of these books were acquired by the library in the 1930s, so it is unknown whether the marginalia were added before or after this time. But it is interesting to ponder what instinct drives someone to comment in a book as they are reading, whether or not they own it themselves. Unlike today's social media, where comments on books, movies and TV shows are meant to be shared, the readers of these books didn't know whether anyone else would read them. If they did leave them intentionally to be read by others later, there was no attempt or desire to make their own identities known. But the traces of their reading experience are nevertheless left to be discovered decades later, creating a link between readers over time. 

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