When to Read Was to Write

Leah Price

  • Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England by William Sherman
    Pennsylvania, 259 pp, £29.50, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 8122 4043 6

The ideal reader is all mind. Swept up in a virtual universe, she no longer notices hunger, heat or cold. Real readers are different. They need eyes to see the page and hands to turn it. Some lick their thumbs; others, like Sheridan’s Lady Slattern, ‘cherish their nails for the convenience of making marginal notes’. Some leave distracting, even disgusting residues. Andrew Lang wrote in 1905 about reading Ann Radcliffe:

The thick double-columned volume in which I peruse the works . . . belongs to a public library. It is quite the dirtiest, greasiest, most dog’s-eared, and most bescribbled tome in the collection. Many of the books have remained, during the last hundred years, uncut, even to this day, and I have had to apply the paper knife to many an author, from Alciphron (1790) to Mr Max Müller, and Dr Birkbeck Hill’s edition of Bozzy’s Life of Dr Johnson. But Mrs Radcliffe has been read diligently, and copiously annotated.

Lang was typical in situating this battle of the books in the library. As the historian Armando Petrucci has shown, the rise of the public library meant the fall of the reader’s body: under the librarian’s eye, tables support only books, not feet; dust jackets are encased in plastic covers. At the entrances to rare-book rooms, bags are searched for food, pens are confiscated, hands are gloved. And as H.J. Jackson pointed out in Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books, one result of the growth in the number of ‘career library books’ that remain in reading-rooms from which drink or even ink is excluded is that we are left with a thinner record of reader-response. Some of the research for William Sherman’s Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England was conducted in Cambridge University Library, where every desk bears a sign reading ‘Marking of Books is Forbidden’, many of them imaginatively defaced. When I worked there at around the same time, the surface I reread most regularly was the wall of the women’s toilets on which someone had expanded ‘UL’ to ‘Underwater Lycra’.

Today, inscribing any medium other than the blank page – whether a toilet wall or a printed book – is frowned on just as much as whistling in the reading-room. The taboo on graffiti reflects characteristically modern ideologies of cleanliness and bodily self-control. The taboo on marginalia, however, reveals a new model of reading. Our culture celebrates receptivity, a willingness to be marked by texts; in early modern England, though, this would have looked more like passivity, a failure to make a mark. In the world Sherman describes, readers were not just permitted but expected to annotate. Far from teaching children the self-restraint needed to keep their grubby hands off desks and textbooks, schoolmasters taught them elaborate notational systems for use in margins.

To read implied to write. Marginalia often dwarfed the host to which they played parasite: one copy of a 1500 edition of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics crams 59,600 words of annotation into 68 pages; one 1516 Bible has 1200 manuscript words per page. When Heidi Brayman Hackel went through 150 copies of Sidney’s Arcadia, she found that almost three-quarters of them contained readers’ marks. This is not to say that they contained what we would recognise as marginalia, however. ‘Pens are not the only objects that have left impressions in these books,’ Sherman quotes her as saying: ‘pressed flowers survive in two volumes, and the rust outlines of pairs of scissors in two other copies.’

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