Browsing in a second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road in the spring of 2004, I came across a copy of History and the Early English Novel by Robert Mayer. I opened it up and loose papers tumbled out. Turning the book’s pages, I saw hundreds of annotations pencilled in the margins: shaky lines and ringed numbers and then, across the endleaves and inside back cover, a thick scrawl of largely illegible notes: page numbers, cross-references, summaries, words circled furiously or underlined – ‘21. Facts’; ‘135. Origins of novel’; ‘143-4. Cromwell, Defoe’. What looks like ‘48-9. Milton’s lust’ is probably ‘Milton’s hist[ory]’. The inside cover has an elegantly looping signature: ‘Christopher Hill/1997/7’. I put the loose papers back and handed over £15. Then I put the book on my bookshelf and forgot about it for nine years.

Moving office last month, I found the book again. According to Keith Thomas, Hill ‘used to pencil on the back endpaper of his books a list of the pages and topics which had caught his attention. He rubbed out his notes if he sold the book, but not always very thoroughly, so one can usually recognise a volume which belonged to him.’ These notes hadn’t been rubbed out at all, so his copy of Mayer’s monograph must have gone on sale only after he died in February 2003.

I spread out the loose pages that had fallen from it. They turned out to be draft notes for a review. Some are in pencil and blue ink, difficult to read, full of abbreviations and Greek letters indicating, I think, insertions. They are scribbled across the backs of two letters: one from Boots Opticians, dated 6 June 1998, suggesting Hill come in for an eye check, signed ‘Sarah Paul, Manager’; the other from Red Pepper, dated 24 August 1998, inviting Hill (‘Dear Investor’) to the AGM on 25 September (‘this has been another difficult year for us financially but an excellent one in terms of the magazine itself’). There is also a typed draft of the review – the wobbly text suggests a vast and antiquated printer – heavily corrected in pencil. This is printed on the back of page 80 of a draft of Mary Astell’s Political Writings: Biographical Notes, by Patricia Springborg.

I didn’t quite know what to do with all this. I read Robin Briggs’s account of Hill in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Hill ‘sat curled up in a curious hammock-like chair, beneath a picture of Oliver Cromwell, and made the pupils do all the work.’ Online, I found Hill’s finished review in the autumn 1999 issue of Literature and History and tracked through its relation to the notes and drafts. He took a while to get going. He got Mayer’s book in July 1997; the pencil drafts were written on the recycled letters after 24 August 1998; the marginalia and endnotes obviously made some time in between. The published review is credited to ‘Christopher Hill, Sibford Ferris’. I looked the place up on Wikipedia: ‘The village has a small shop.’ I tried to find Sarah Paul, manager of Boots in 1998, but got lost in a forest of namesakes. Robert Mayer teaches English at Oklahoma State University: there is a departmental picture of him wearing dark glasses in the snow. Patricia Springborg’s edition of the political writings of Mary Astell appeared in 1996. She teaches at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy (founded in October 1997, just after Hill bought Mayer’s book). ‘In her spare time she sings and plays the piano.’

There is both too much and too little here: and that’s the experience of reading an annotated book. Too much to ignore: the jottings and the allusions and the half-comprehensible exclamations are, on one level, irresistible. But there is too little to give much sense of a personality, or of a moment of reading. The many recent studies of the history of reading that draw on marginalia are often written in a prefatory register: here is a beguiling pool of evidence which we can describe, but – what then? What are we to do with annotated books?