As Kindles Take Over, What Happens to Margin Notes?

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With the rise of e-readers, anxiety mounts about the future of underlining and scribbling in books

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Margin notes are finally having a moment in the literary limelight. With the evolution of e-readers and iPads—Kindle sales are said to have topped 8 million in 2010, iPads nearly double that, and Jeff Bezos recently announced that for every 100 paperbacks that now leave Amazon's warehouses, 115 e-books leave its servers—various members of the literati's old guard have stepped forward to meditate on the disappearing art of having a pen-in-hand "conversation" with an old-fashioned, battery-less book.


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The opening salvo was a New York Times dispatch from Chicago's Newberry Library, home to some of American arts and letters' most important margin scribbles, tirades, and asides. Readers—famously among them Poe, Coleridge, and Jefferson—have long filled the precious real estate between the printed word and the edge of the page with their running commentary, and margins are a trove of insight for scholars and biographers. But Mark Twains1 of tomorrow, beware—the future of such "literary archaeology" in the Age of Kindle raises a number of questions about whether e-annotations will add value to paperless books or simply spew more ephemeral, unfiltered chatter to the digital world. Ink fixed on paper, fragile as it is, has a kind of permanence that bytes of data can't claim.

Not long after, Sam Anderson, master practitioner of literary journalism, used the Times Sunday Magazine's new Riff column to observe that marking up a book's pages gave him "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." His admission that followed, that "marginalia is—no exaggeration—possibly the most pleasurable thing I do on a daily basis," might seem hyperbolic until you click through and see photos of the annotations he's provided. A line in David Shields' Reality Hunger prompts Anderson to write, "I'm going to punch this bk in the face if it makes this point again." Barbara Kingsolver's Lacuna gets the editorial scythe: "SHOULD'VE ENDED NOVEL HERE—not made explicit." Anderson even posts perhaps the least fawning words yet written about Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (outside of The Atlantic's pages, anyway), alongside a tired meditation on bombastic cable television and Twitter. "OMG! ROLLING EYES SO HARD!! Someone needs to protect F's art from his editorializing."

At present, annotating an e-book with a stylus is about as handy as marking up a Norton anthology with a Crayola. The amount of clicking required to two-finger type a note using the Kindle's mini keyboard is even worse. But as technology (and perhaps our patience) improves, Anderson envisions a kind of free global bazaar of e-marginalia, so that you can read Hemingway, while also reading--in the margins—Gary Shteyngart's thoughts on reading Hemingway. Or your sister's. Or Michiko Kakutani's. (One wonders what would happen if readers were allowed to vote annotations up or down, or even annotate each other's annotations, as plugins like Commentpress and digress.it now do for blogs. A literary vortex, perhaps.)

"I want, in short, marginalia, everywhere, all the time," Anderson concludes. Welcome to the twenty-first century, kids, where even reading is social, networked activity.

Anderson is among the literary vanguard's optimists, though. Also entering the marginalia debate last week, on NPR's All Things Considered, was Romanian-American poet Andrei Codrescu, for whom the conversational free-for-all promised by e-books is apparently a tenth circle of hell. Inciting Codrescu's ire was the "popular highlights" feature on Kindle: the faint dotted underlining that, as Codrescu put it, "will tell you how many morons have underlined before so that not only you do not own the new book you paid for, the entire experience of reading is shattered by the presence of a mob that agitates inside your text like strangers in a train station."

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Kevin Charles Redmon is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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