As Kindles Take Over, What Happens to Margin Notes?

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



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.

Benjamin Schwarz: Life in the Margins
Megan McArdle: E-Readers Better Than Books for the Environment
Tess Taylor: Paper Trail

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 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."

What is to be done? As Codrescu lays it out, in his slow, menacing growl, this is "the end of the privileged relation between yourself and your book," and you, dear reader, have no privacy and no recourse. Okay, well—no recourse except turning off "popular highlights," which, on my Kindle, takes about ten clicks and an equal number of seconds.

The idea behind "popular highlights" isn't exactly revolutionary, either. We have long allowed others to draw our attention to a novel's particularly vital or artful passages.2 When you read Crime and Punishment as an undergraduate, for example, your Russian literature professor dedicated a full week of lectures to Raskolnikov's confession and skipped over much of the rest. Good literature is more than the sum of its best passages, but it's worth having a few guideposts that point to the ones most worthy of attention. And if you don't trust the wiki of would-be English lit professors—191 of who, I see, have highlighted Franzen's thesis in Freedom, "The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage"—well, turn the feature off. As Sam Anderson observes, like director's commentary, e-marginalia need not be anything other than value-added.

Codrescu's ultimate verdict on the Kindle, "sugar-coated cyanide," might be too dismissive. E-readers remain poor platforms for many books—poetry, physics textbooks, anything by David Foster Wallace.3 But for all that's been said about the "conversation" possible between a reader and her printed book, the conversation that will soon be lost to the digital ether, there is one utterly redeemable feature on the Kindle: its built-in dictionary. Being provided the definitions to strange words—efficacious, sartorial, miscegenation, words you know you should know—might feel less like a conversation than a lecture, but for those who read in the pursuit of lifelong learning, it's a welcome one. Indeed, it may be that the conversations we're used to having with our books aren't disappearing so much as changing.

It may also be—if Sam Anderson's e-topian vision comes to bear—that we learn to converse not with our books but through them. The risk is that this comes at the expense of our solitude, our sanity. The reward is that it constructs a public lecture hall of metacriticism and literary discourse. In either case, and for calcifics like Andrei Codrescu, it comes with an off-switch. But the impulse to respond to and engage with a text will hardly be a casualty of the e-reader.

As for ink-on-paper marginalia, this limelight moment will end, sooner or later, with a lingering exit stage left. Wish it well.

1 For those pondering how Mark Twain, marginalia fiend, would feel about his readers dropping the pen and reaching for the stylus or keyboard instead, consider: Twain was one of the first writers to draft his novels on a newfangled typewriter, as well as an early adopter of the telephone. He might surprise us.

2 A printed book's metadata—dog-ears, spine cracks, coffee rings—are arguably as valuable its marginalia. And what teenage boy doesn't recall mining the metadata of the books high up on the shelf in his parents' bedroom, looking for where the pages naturally fell open to find the most salacious bits? The copy of Snow Falling on Cedars I inherited still does this.

3 The inimitable DFW, who, w/r/t footnotes, loved to do things like this, usually to take you down a narrative rabbit hole and edify you, and sometimes just to fuck with you. The time and frustration required to access an e-book's footnotes and then click back to the text is absolutely maddening. You would rather suffer scoliosis induced from carrying Infinite Jest around in your bag for three months than try to read it on a Kindle.