As tablets replace magazines, apps replace grocery lists, and GChat replaces love letters, a fetish for handwritten bits and pieces has blossomed in certain corners of the culture. Found magazine celebrates discarded mash notes, mail-art project PostSecret compiles confessional postcards, and Letters of Note publishes scanned missives written by celebrities and regular folks. There are Pinterest boards devoted to penmanship, and fonts that imitate the vanishing messiness of handwriting.
Most of this interest is aesthetic, a kind of retro fetish triggered by our quickening shift into a digital culture. But the scholarly world is now in the midst of a parallel—and much more ambitious—rediscovery of notes as well. After disregarding them for generations as the side matter to more significant work, academic researchers are increasingly focusing their attention on the bits of writing that appear around, before, and underneath the text of books and other supposedly finished printed products.
From the advent of publishing, generations of readers marked their books with thoughts and responses, sometimes very detailed, to what they were reading. The lectures of great philosophers, artists, and doctors were attended by students who took copious notes which, occasionally, survive. Card catalogs, family Bibles, and scientific field books are full of information jotted down in the moment and often preserved nowhere else. All of this amounts to a trove of data about the world scattered in libraries and archives that only now is becoming possible for researchers to share and study easily.
As they do, what these academics are finding is that notes hold the key to unlocking the conversation around great works—both the thinking that went into them, and the way the world used and received them. In examining the scribblings once dismissed as detritus at best and graffiti at worst, they are unlocking real insights into the way people in the past read, thought, worked, loved, and joked. In some cases, they reveal hidden authors of a book; in others, they show that medical students learned something quite different from the official curriculum.
In English and history departments and in relatively young subfields like the history of reading, scholars are producing books and articles on such topics as marginal notes and bureaucratic paperwork. The journal Intellectual History Review devoted a special issue to note-taking in early modern Europe. Rare book dealers and collectors now prize editions with the kind of marginal notes they once bleached to remove. And “Take Note,” a conference Nov. 1 and 2 at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is assembling experts from disciplines including history, literature, and computer science to address the rise of these once-marginal jottings as a topic in their own right.
“This stuff has been in the margins for hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years,” historian Bill Sherman, the author of a 2007 book about how readers marked books in Renaissance England, said. “But like a lot of things from the past it only becomes visible when there’s a meaning, or potential meaning, attached to it.”
Amid all the research momentum, however, lies a challenge. As marginalia has become more visible to scholars, it is also beginning to disappear from the world around us, or at least to change profoundly. Readers and writers are producing more incidental lines than ever—from text messages to Tumblrs—but these digital traces may be even more ephemeral than their paper ancestors. So, as a new generation of scholars culls significance from millennia of miscellany, the question inevitably haunting their work is this: Now that we’ve figured out the value of notes, just what is their future in the 21st century?
N ote-taking might sound obscure, but notation has occupied the minds of some of the great artists and cultural figures of the past centuries. William Blake studiously underlined and annotated even friends’ books with comments like “Bravo” and “This is Folly Itself”; Graham Greene covered the 3,000 books in his own library (now owned by Boston College) with plot summaries and dialogue snippets. Published volumes of Samuel Coleridge’s marginal notes total 6,000 pages. One of them reads: “I have looked thro’ this book with some attention, April 21, 1803—, and seldom indeed have I read a more thoroughly worthless one.”
The scribblings of anonymous or at least nonfamous readers, however, have traditionally been disregarded as something closer to graffiti. This began to change over the course of the 20th century, as history and literature departments began turning their attention from text to context. Instead of valorizing individual achievements, scholars became more interested in how those achievements arose, which means unearthing the conversations and collaborations that preceded and followed them—what one researcher calls “reminders that books never work alone.”Continued...