Amicable Annotation, Part 1 (Friendship by Book)

[Image: Page from an annotated early sixteenth-century copy of Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium.]

Here begins the second post in the series on the reciprocal relation between friendship and the book–the book facilitating the practice of friendship, friendship shaping the materiality of the book–across the modern era. Readers new to the series are strongly encouraged to read the first post (found here), which discusses 1. what I’ve termed “the relational meanings of books” and 2. why friendship offers an ideal starting point for investigation into this dimension of the book’s usefulness. That post concludes with a case study of the humanist practice of inscribing books “et amicorum” (of/belonging to one’s friends).

The present contribution begins a miniseries (a few pieces of which appearing now, with more coming in a few weeks) on another element of the “friendship paratext.” I’m using that phrase to describe the material opportunities that books offer for amicable interaction on the surfaces surrounding the “text proper.” “Paratext” describes the familiar architectural features of the codex that envelope the principal text, including front/back matter and the local structures of the page (so dust jacket, end papers, preface, headings, numbers, index, etc.).  In the first post, we watched early moderns depositing their amicable motto on the outer edges of the book, including covers, title pages, and colophons. In this miniseries, I consider the friendly dealings that go on between and beside the lines of the (ostensible) principal text. Now, alongside writing, reading (and non-reading, in the form of diversion) enters our consideration.


A Book I have — a friend gave —
Whose Pencil — here and there —
Had notched the place that pleased Him —
At Rest — His fingers are —

Emily Dickinson, “[Death sets a Thing Significant]” (ca. 1862)

In their private and public writings, Victorian naturalists traded reports on spottings among their ranks of two scholarly species: lumpers and (hair-)splitters. “Those who make many species are the ‘splitters,'” Charles Darwin wrote in this vein to his friend J. D. Hooker in 1857, “and those who make few are the ‘lumpers.'” As a friend of mine has on several occasions observed, “lumping” and “splitting” are common academic habits of mind, observable across the arts and sciences. Lumpers identify continuities across time and space; they meet a world full of resemblances. Splitters, meanwhile, champion specificity–of times, peoples, places, specimens. Where the lumper gathers, the splitter scatters. Both of these mindsets will prove helpful to us as this series develops. For while the project is a “lumpy” one (beginning with the great lump that is “the modern era”), it will also involve a good deal of splitting. While we’ll be exploring how the book binds the modern experience of friendship, and friendship the modern experience/shape of the book, we will also be employing textual technologies to track changes in the notion and practices of friendship over the centuries, and, in turn, the stages of the book’s evolution under friendship’s sway.

Consider, for example, the stanza above. Dickinson offers an ideal ingredient for lumping. Notice that the book’s title isn’t mentioned. It doesn’t matter: the matter itself matters. The real value is in the physical thing, in its preservation of traces of the late friend. Hundreds of years earlier, the European humanists exercised this relational dimension of the book: they, too, scribbled notes in their books and delighted friends with such personalized presents. A historian with a good archive at hand likely wouldn’t break a sweat tracing the succession of annotators that carried practices of “amicable annotation” from the early modern Old World to the Dickinson circle in New England. To rehash remarks from the previous post, Dickinson and the humanists alike did friendship by the book. And their books were transformed by friendship, in turn. This continuity might not have seemed all that remarkable a few years ago–and, indeed, it might not seem so to some readers now. But perhaps–so this series would argue–these once ordinary, even seemingly “natural,” practices and assumptions have taken on a different look or air against the backdrop of the changing cultural position of the print codex and the ever-increasing role of digitalia in the contemporary practice of friendship. In other words, such a “lump”–stretching from, say, Angelo Poliziano to the Belle of Amherst and onward a few generations–might have a new interest, a greater meaning (urgency for some? relief for others?) for those who feel their times [and perhaps their selves] sloping away from it, if not already situated on its other side.

Now even as we lumped, some readers may have already begun to split (or sensed a split or two opening). Let’s begin with the obvious matter of biology. The case study of “et amicorum” inscriptions among the humanists said nothing about early modern women. (The first female inscriber to appear in that section was one Jennie Cohen, who had Celia Levetus design an arts-and-craftsy bookplate for her in 1894.) Classical authorities told the humanists that the highest sort of friendship wasn’t possible between men and women (Aristotle, for example, grants that husbands and wives may enjoy a lesser sort of friendship, that of “unequals”); and they for the most part agreed. Skepticism, moreover, resided over the possibility of real friendship between women. This is not to say that men and women never befriended one another in those days (by their standards or later ones) or that early modern women didn’t develop robust theories and practices on their own (there’s a growing body of modern scholarship on these issues). My point now is simply that the background event of Dickinson’s poem–the gifting of an annotated book from a male friend to (what I take to be) the female speaker–would be an uncommon transaction at the beginning of our period of historical inquiry. Our speaker, though, doesn’t dwell on that element of the book’s passage: it doesn’t strike her as remarkable.

Notice, too, the giver’s method of annotation. Strewn about the book are pencil-notches marking passages that “pleased” the earlier reader. The notches apparently weren’t deposited with the book’s eventual recipient in mind: Dickinson’s giver had been reading for his own pleasure. Yet he left the pencillings in place (he might have erased them with indiarubber), suggesting that they were part of the gift. The used book has a value that a pristine copy would not. The poem turns on the realization that in the giver’s absence, the value of such once seemingly trifling scratches becomes clear: “Death sets a Thing significant / The Eye had hurried by.” The former owner’s desultory practice again contrasts with humanist approaches to annotation, which, while of course various, were often more active, voluble, and (in many cases) erudite in character. (We’ll explore some of the varieties of early modern annotation in Parts 2-4 of this miniseries.) Some humanists prepared extensively annotated books with the members of their circle in mind. These books offered hearty reading aids rather than the crumbs left by private amusement. Again, Dickinson’s speaker expresses no dismay about the lack of tutelage in the margins.

I want to propose one more split, this one growing from the related matter of the poet’s own practice as an annotator. In his award-winning biography of Dickinson, Richard Benson Sewall observes the following of our epigraph: “Apparently, the habit of notching passages was hers, too.” Dickinson scholars have detected signs of Emily’s annotations–in the form of thin vertical pencil lines and x’s in the margins–in a number of books in the libraries at the Homestead (where she lived with her parents and her sister, Lavinia) and Evergreens (the house next door owned by her brother, Austin, and sister-in-law/best friend, Susan). “The trouble is,” Sewall notes, “other people in the Dickinson circle had pencils too, and followed the same practice.” We can’t be exactly sure which marks were Emily’s and which those of friends and relations, since they were all “notching” rather than noting in distinctive hands. So, too, do all the folded down pages in the Homestead & Evergreen libraries leave signs only of someone’s interest. (A post on the Dickinson collection at the Houghton is found here. Contents of the Harvard Dickinson family collection are available here.)

Here’s a sample page from a copy of The Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning that bears the inscription, “Sue H. Gilbert.”

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Who made these marks in Sue’s book? What was pleasing about this passage (if the vertical line is a mark of pleasure)? How many members of the household or broader circle read the book after it had been annotated? This method of annotation begs many such questions. The marginal conversation is closed to eavesdroppers, even Dickinson experts.

The Dickinson circle of amicable annotation offers a glimpse of an issue that we’ll be discussing in several future posts: the withdrawal of friendship from the public realm into the private in the modern era (though we’ll also see that our focus on the book allows us to complicate this history). Again, the humanists offer a point of contrast. As discussed in the previous post, books served semi-public (or even openly public) purposes for humanist friends. Books, once again, were to be “held in common,” and this included annotation. Notes, too,  circulated in the humanist friend-networks, beginning in a local circle and later reaching far-flung audiences (especially if published). The humanists annotated against the background of the Republic of Letters; the Dickinson circle within neighboring houses on Main Street in Amherst. (We should recognize, however, that notes on Emily’s reading could reach beyond her immediate surroundings to her “epistolary book club,” to use Elinor Heginbotham’s phrase, with friends such as Elizabeth Holland).

This miniseries will (let’s hope) deepen these observations about the continuities and divisions of the practices of friendship and annotation over the modern era. In the next few posts, I will expand the discussion of how humanist friendship played out in the margins of their books. In the upcoming reflections (posted in a few weeks), I will turn to the period which some scholars consider marginalia’s heyday, the later eighteenth century/Romantic period, before concluding with a few notes on friendship and the emerging practices of annotation-sharing via digital devices.


Ready for more? Part 2 is here.


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