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

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.’

Those rust stains should remind scholars not to get their hopes up: the ubiquity of readers’ marks doesn’t guarantee a record of reader-response. Paper was expensive and notes did not always comment on the printed text beside them: the margins also provided a handy writing surface for unrelated ‘penmanship exercises, prayers, recipes, popular poetry, drafts of letters, mathematical calculations, shopping lists’. It’s not surprising that everyday genres like almanacs are especially rich in these jottings; what does come as a shock is to stumble, as Sherman did, on a recipe for leek sauce scrawled on a page of Boccaccio’s Amorous Fiammetta. As every schoolchild who has caricatured his teacher on the flyleaf of a textbook knows, marginalia can signal distraction as easily as absorption: in another scholar’s taxonomy of marginal notes, subcategories include ‘censorship’, ‘doodling’ and ‘daydreaming’. Conversely, the most impassioned reading covers its own tracks. The greater a reader’s engagement with the text, the less likely she is to pause long enough to leave a record: if an uncut page indicates dismissal, a blank margin just as often betrays absorption.

Marginalia appeal to scholars’ voyeurism, allowing them to peer over a past reader’s shoulder. But the metaphor of eavesdropping works better for the margins of the Romantic era that Jackson studied than for Sherman’s period. Renaissance readers didn’t think of their markings as private: annotation was performative, not solipsistic; symbols were conventional, not cryptic. The stubborn refusal of early modern marginalia to yield up the confessions that 21st-century scholars are looking for reflects a radically different conception of the self and the body. Many of the scholars who turn to marginalia in the hope of finding a record of reader-response are members of English departments, yet, as Sherman establishes, early modern literary texts were much less heavily annotated than legal and religious ones. And as those scissor marks suggest, traces of reading are rarer than traces of handling.

Like other recent scholars of the book – notably Carla Mazzio and Bradin Cormack in Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700 – Sherman replaces ‘reading’ by the more capacious term ‘use’. This rebranding isn’t just a digitally inspired euphemism. To think in terms of ‘use’ is to demote reading to one entry in a long list of things that people can do to books and with books, including searching, owning, signing, repairing and displaying. Some of these activities (the ones on which Sherman’s analysis lingers) are verbal; others are purely manual. As a result, Sherman acknowledges, marginalia are not the monopoly of literary critics: other disciplines, notably archaeology, have developed sophisticated tools with which to study material culture.

Articulate, relevant, informative marginalia are hard to come by and, in their absence, one has to fall back on non-verbal evidence. At best, deliberate underlining with a pen or a fingernail; more often, unintentional smudges and stains. For every ink mark, there are ten drink spills; for every trace of tears or semen, ten of wax or smoke. If book historians have gravitated towards tear-jerkers and pornography, it may be because both produce a somatic response. Scholars from various disciplines share the urge to match a mental process with material measurements: in 1988, Victor Nell’s Lost in a Book measured readers’ responses by means of salivation rates, cardiovascular rhythms and electrogastrograms. More recently, cognitive scientists have turned their attention to reading (Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid), and literary critics to cognitive science (Lisa Zunshine in Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel). But marginalia got there first. No less than an electrocardiogram, underscorings provide a permanent record of fleeting responses.

The pen marks in my own copy of Used Books cluster in its second chapter, ‘Toward a History of the Manicule’. Littering the margins of early modern books, these pointing fingers call our attention to lines and paragraphs: ‘some of these hands are printed and some handwritten; some are clothed in the simplest of sleeves and others emerge from billowing cuffs with pendant jewels; some suggest the merest outline of a hand while others capture the sinews, joints and even nails.’ As Sherman shows, these hands are the closest thing annotators had to a visual signature. Modern readers’ handwriting is distinctive but their symbols are standardised; in the Renaissance, the reverse was true. Handwriting was doubly unrecognisable, given that an individual could use multiple ‘hands’ for different purposes and that each would ideally follow a standard model. Manicules, however, bear the impress of particular personalities, from the long fingernails of one set to the elaborate ruffs surrounding the wrists of another.

Some manicules stretch trompe-l’oeil-style to the edge of the page, uncannily simulating a reader’s hand reaching into our field of vision, ‘almost like a comic version of the hand of God coming down from the clouds’. These marginalia don’t just look like the hand of God, however: they look like a cursor. In the late 1970s, the Xerox Star pioneered the use of a cursor in the form of a hand-shaped icon; in 1981, the phrase ‘direct manipulation’ was coined to describe the computer interface that we now call ‘point and click’. Sherman puts the digits back into the digital age, arguing that its verbal and visual metaphors derive from the long tradition of hands that mark books and the manicules marked in them. Far from a disembodied meeting of minds, Renaissance thinkers imagined reading as a corporeal act in which the hand played as much of a role as the mind. To ‘mark’ (as in ‘mark my words’) meant ‘to leave a trace on the page’ before it came to refer to the mental action of noticing and remembering.

Ambivalence about readers’ marks surfaces most visibly in the contemporary book trade. Marginalia can add to the value of a book (if they can be attributed to a famous person) or detract from it (if they belong to an anonymous student with a highlighter). In fact, Sherman points out, a 16th-century book could be described (in a 1952 sale catalogue) as ‘rather soiled by use’ and (in a 1953 exhibition catalogue) as ‘well and piously used’, with ‘marginal notations in an Elizabethan hand’ that ‘bring to life an early and earnest owner’. Some binders, collectors and book dealers try to restore books to their original state: stains, smudges and even marginalia can be bathed in bleach; old covers and endpapers are often scrapped by binders, while margins can be trimmed off altogether.

Now that libraries catalogue books as either ‘manuscript’ or ‘printed’, marginalia can slip between the cracks. In the period Sherman describes, the boundary was more porous. Some readers, he concludes, distinguished between big and small printed books more sharply than they did between printed books and manuscripts. Manuscripts copied printed books and printed books modelled themselves on manuscript templates – rather as digital interfaces borrow concepts like the folder and the recycling bin. This interplay of reading and writing made sense in an era when readers customised their own books. Even after the invention of printing, aids like tables of contents and indexes were added by hand by individuals. Readers would interleave blank pages, rearrange sections, and could even combine sections from different volumes. The printed page was seen as merely a starting place, and marginalia were only one way in which readers – and owners – could personalise their libraries.

The future of such methods forms the end point of Used Books. University press catalogues in the past few years have been flooded with titles in the form ‘[adjective referring to a historical period] + [noun referring to a later invention]’: thus, an account of telegraphy called The Victorian Internet, or a collection of essays on book history under the title of The Renaissance Computer. Sherman throws his hat into the overcrowded ring with a chapter on commonplace books called ‘Sir Julius Caesar’s Search Engine’, but his speculations on the post-Renaissance computer are inconclusive. Although electronic text is often described in the language of interactivity, Sherman claims that online databases erase the reader’s tracks: unlike paper, they preserve neither bodily marks nor readerly commentary. If that were true, computers would stand at the end of the Cartesian trajectory that I’ve just described: the separation of hardware from software making one reader’s body invisible to another. But companies have a vested interest in tracking the eyes and thumbs of online readers, since the number of click-throughs determines the value of advertising. Offline, Adobe Acrobat allows readers to add underlinings and marginalia to PDFs; and even Amazon’s stripped-down e-reader, the Kindle, supports marginal annotation. And social networking sites promise to make reading more interactive, not less. Wikalong, a new plugin for the Firefox browser, makes it possible to add notes to the margin of a web page. Sites like and enable individuals to label websites with their own keywords, and to search for sites tagged by other users; the resulting lists have some similarity to the handmade indexes that Sherman describes on the endpapers of Renaissance books.

‘Social tagging’ doesn’t just return us to a culture in which reading is punctuated by writing; it also restores a pre-Romantic sense of reading as communal or even collaborative. The tools available at include ‘proximity chat’, which allows readers to respond to the comments of others who have reached the same point in a text. This addresses an age-old problem in the reviewing of narrative fiction: how to avoid giving the plot away. But it also reflects an understanding of reading as an unfolding process, not just something to be reported on once completed. On Amazon no less than in the LRB, etiquette dictates – in theory, at least – that reviewers finish a book before they make their reactions public. In contrast, BookGlutton re-creates the sense of real-time discovery also offered by marginalia.

No one has yet figured out where the virtual margin lies: standards for online annotation remain the subject of lively debate. What does seem clear, though, is that the web will change only the way readers deposit traces of their responses, not whether they do it. Perhaps eavesdropping will give way to broadcasting. Perhaps the highlighter-wielding sociopath will give way to the sociable (or exhibitionistic) citizen of Web 2.0. Perhaps blogs will be swamped by tangentially relevant comments and counter-comments whose volume dwarfs the posting to which they nominally respond. Perhaps our future, like our past, will be framed by cluttered margins.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences