Friday, July 1, 2016

When books were more than just books

...The manifestation of this fragmentary, spectral presence is likely to surprise readers whose familiarity with marginalia begins and ends with checkmarks and interpretive gloss; indeed, a great deal of 16th- and 17th-century marginalia has nothing whatsoever to do with the text it is written in. Orgel cites the scholar Heidi Brayman Hackel who, in her study of the margins of early copies of Sidney’s Arcadia, found a ubiquity of seemingly irrelevant markings:

Fragments of verse, lists of clothing, enigmatic phrases, incomplete calculations, sassy records of ownership […] a shield painted in watercolors, impish faces peering out from the margin, geometric figures on a flyleaf, a mother and child on a blank sheet […] pressed flowers […] the rust outlines of pairs of scissors.

Orgel believes these marks constitute a kind of graffiti, albeit one stripped of its transgressive connotations. He argues this graffiti reveals a material dimension (and a material value) of old books that has been lost to time: that is, the bound object as not merely text but also “a place and a property”, a locus of particular ownership benefitting from incremental enhancement. These were items to be improved, even perfected, by the marginal additions of their owners. This historical understanding of books as locations, as readerly edifices within which one might store practical information, binding legal documentation, jokes, and ownership lists, alongside more traditional textual engagement, challenges our contemporary perception of a book’s materiality, one which often equates pristine margins with the value of the new. “At what point did marginalia […] become a way of defacing [the book] rather than of increasing its value?” asks Orgel early on. This proves to be a fundamental question, as the tensions he unearths between these two material understandings of books (and book use) are no small part of the lasting fascination of The Reader in the Book...

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