Vacant Victorian Margins (Amicable Annotation, Part 10)

[Feature image: Marginal marking in pencil in Byron’s “Parsinia,” Harvard’s Dickinson Family Collection.]

After a long hiatus, I return to the Amicable Annotation miniseries… It starts here.

Nowadays Andrew Lang is remembered primarily as a collector of folk and fairy tales. His contemporaries in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods also knew Lang as a lover of and hunter after old books. (The Dictionary of National Biography once dubbed him “the greatest bookman of his age.”) In wry essays on contemporary book culture published in the periodical press in the eighties and nineties, Lang observed a trend of note to this miniseries on annotation: a strong distaste for marginalia among book-buyers. In The Library (1881), a tongue-in-cheek guide to book collecting, for example, his catalogue of “book ghouls” placed the “conceited ghoul who writes his notes across our fair white margins, in pencil, or in more baneful ink” in the contemptible company of the moralist ghoul who defaces bawdy passages, the “antiquarian ghoul” who clips title pages and colophons, and the “aesthetic ghoul” who thieves historiated initials. The same volume discusses remedies for past readers’ residues such as greasy thumb-marks and unwanted “Ms. notes.”

In “Scrawls in Books” (1894), Lang declares himself no such “purist” on the matter of marginalia, and puts up, for our purposes, a very telling apology:

The practice of scribbling on fly-leaves and margins has many enemies. […] As a rule, tidy and self-respecting people do not even write their names on their fly-leaves, still less do they scribble marginalia. Collectors love a clean book, but a book scrawled on may have other merits. […] The selling value of a book may be lowered even by a written owner’s name, but many a book, otherwise worthless, is redeemed by an interesting note. Even the uninteresting notes gradually acquire an antiquarian value, if contemporary with the author. They represent the mind of a dead age …

What Lang is describing here should sound familiar: for this sensibility, in which the pristine book is most prized, has, of course, carried over into our own age. We, in keeping with Victorian taste, are often put off by books that look used. We want our books tidy, clean, untouched by other hands. To “scribble” on them is to mar them, reducing their value. The cost of this silence, for Lang, is that we lose–and our successor generations lose, in turn–the opportunity to watch others read, to watch their minds in motion. To this the present study would add: we also lose the ability to watch how books circulate–if they circulate at all.

Stephen Orgel sees this moment as the completion of a gradual cultural shift from a reader-centered to an author-centered vision of the book. The latter paradigm reigned in the early modern period when the reader “perfected” his purchase, beginning with having the leaves bound. Attentive readers also amended printing errors and, as has been discussed in earlier posts in this series, added commentary. Readers’ labors could thereby significantly enhance a book’s value. Modern books, by contrast, leave no room for readerly “perfection”: they come to us as finished products. A reader’s interventions–personalized re-binding, inscriptions, marginalia–thus become potential defects. Now a book’s future fortunes improve by seeming as if it had no past, no previous readers/owners. “By the twentieth century,” Orgel cuttingly observes, “writing in books had become an egregious form of anti-social behavior.”

Orgel here sounds the perfect note with which to return to H. J. Jackson’s account of the fate of marginalia from the Victorian era into the twentieth century. In a late chapter of Marginalia titled “Book Use or Book Abuse,” Jackson similarly testifies to modern anxieties about annotation. In striking parallels to Lang’s and Orgel’s remarks above, she observes that marginalia are “untidy” and that “Books are no longer designed to incorporate them […] the better produced and more beautiful the book is, the less hospitable it is likely to be to manuscript additions.” Jackson claims that Coleridge–whom we will return to in a moment–converted her to annotation, yet even in her defense marginalia sounds like a nuisance, such as when she argues that “the value of the notes has somehow to outweigh the intrusion” (italics mine). That last word echoes a common complaint about annotation from Victorian readers; marginalia appears an indecorous interruption of the current reader’s communion with the book. It’s an offense against the presumed privacy of reading.

In an often-quoted passage, Jackson divides the contemporary book world circa 2001 into two conflicting classes, Annotators and Bibliophiles:

Pride of ownership, which leads readers initially to write their names in their books, carries through for some of them into marginalia, further acts of self-assertive appropriation. Others, however, admit only the ownership or presentation inscription and reject marginalia as desecration. They consider it their responsibility to keep the book intact and unaltered. For most of the twentieth century, these two groups — call them A for Annotator and B for Bibliophile — have existed in a state of mutual incomprehension. (A thinks that B might as well stand for Bore, and B that A is for Anarchist.) B as a matter of course considers A to be slovenly, irresponsible, and self-indulgent.

I want to suggest that Jackson’s As and Bs are both anti-social on the matter of writing in books, albeit in different ways. We have already been discussing the habits of Bs and like species above. They are the prizers of the pristine, those who view the markings of others as incursions, defilement, bad behavior. As an extreme case, Jackson recalls an exchange with a librarian who clung so devoutly to the creed of tidiness as to believe that even Coleridge “spoiled” books by writing in them.

The example of Coleridge, moreover, helps us to measure the increasingly anti-social bent of nineteenth-century annotation. Jackson observes that as Coleridge was publishing his marginalia in 1819 (initiating the Victorian genre of [often faux] books of marginalia imitated by Edgard Allan Poe among others), the so-called “industrial revolution of the book” was kicking into gear. New systems of production and new modes of book distribution in the teens and twenties lowered prices and expanded the book-owning population. This was the period, as James Raven terms it, of “cheaper books.” (The phrase “cheap books” is, by the way, a watchword of the nineteenth century.) Jackson’s “Kingdom of Sociability,” in which Coleridge had been a darling prince, now gives way to the “Kingdom of Subjectivity”:

What seems to have happened is that by and large readers retreated into themselves, and annotation became predominantly a private affair, a matter of self-expression. Annotating readers went underground. Personal systems of marks become more common … Darwin’s and Melville’s books make good examples. In them, manuscript indexes with the briefest of subject headings take the place of discursive notes: they would be sufficient for the owner, and no other reader was thought of.

So having more “cheaper” books around means that there’s less need to share them. Meanwhile, the rise of libraries in the eighteenth century, an institution that became increasingly public in the nineteenth, creates an alternative “sharing economy” ruled by the “bibliophilic” doctrine of tidy margins. In these new technological and social conditions, one doesn’t read in the expectation of passing the book on to a friend. There are, of course, exceptions. The important point for our purposes is that the Kingdom of Subjectivity–or, as I’d like to call it, the Republic of Cheap Books–makes “amicable annotation” of the kinds chronicled in previous posts exceptional. Jackson’s As often sprawl notes in their own secret keys; thus, no one else, even their brother and sister As, know not what to make of their jottings and so have no use for them. Indeed, As may resemble Bs on the question of other readers’ marginalia: they seek virgin territory to populate with their own (inscrutable) musings. I’m convinced that the book remains a vital element of the Victorian practice of friendship, yet–and this may be an issue pursued in another post in this “friendship: book” series–the ink and energy goes elsewhere in their books (such as in inscriptions, dedications, and in genres of gift-books that one buys rather than makes for friends). Friendship is, as it were, still all over Victorian-era books, though it leaves a much lighter impression in the margins.

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