Life in the margins—of books, that is

I still buy print books: these are from my "to read" shelf. But half the books I buy now are for an electronic reader.

I still buy print books: these are from my “to read” shelf. But half the books I buy now are for an electronic reader.

About half the books I read now are just electronic files on a Kindle. No creases on the cover art, no dog-eared pages, no margins to write in. This is one thing ebooks cannot replicate: the stuff that happens to the book during the reading process. Somehow, electronic highlights and comments on an ereader are not quite the same.

Do you fold back your covers? Often I can’t resist, as I start a new book, pressing the cover open: a loved book is a creased book, after all.
And despite all my efforts to stop them, successive cats I have owned have ALL enjoyed chewing the corners of my books, tell-tale fang holes appearing mysteriously after I’ve been out of the room.
When I was growing up, we were taught never to write in the margins of books. So-called “marginalia” was acceptable only in a text book and then only if you owned it and you wrote in pencil. On a novel, though, the most you could do was write your name and maybe the year on the top right of the title page. It goes without saying that writing anything on library books was forbidden.
So, most of my old books are pristine: but now I wish I’d broken the rules and written my thoughts in the margins.
I made an exception when I was studying German language and literature at university. German was hard and I’d go through texts meticulously, translating every word I didn’t know. Recently, I came across one of my books from that time, a Hörspiel—a radio play— Zum Tee Bei Dr. Borsig, by Heinrich Böll. As well as copious and tedious translations in pencil, my 19-year-old self had written in the margin of one page, “Sooo boring”!
Go back further to myself as a child, aged about 13. My family and I had lived in Los Angeles for a few years and I’d acted in some TV shows and films, so I fancied myself as quite the director-producer-performer when we returned to New Zealand. Back home from Hollywood though and it was back to amateur stage shows in and around Auckland, and fierce competition at auditions.
You were always supposed to give back scripts at the end of a production, but somehow,  I  still have a script from a 1970s production of  The Sound of Music, a typewritten, plain brown-covered script stamped throughout with “TGA Choral and Operatic Society Library”. Although the script says it’s published by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Music Library, I somehow doubt that, because on the title page in capital letters, it says it is “THE RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN LUBRARY EDITION”. Yes, a typo.
SOM-scriptUntil recently, I had forgotten about this script, but my mother found it stored in a box and gave it to me. In it is a lot of marginalia by various actors who performed in the show over the years—pencilled-in dance steps, rehearsal dates, changes to lines, stage directions and so on.

SOM-script3_0002On p. 3 is the cast list, and you can still make out my additions: I’ve obviously been dreaming (quite ridiculously) about producing The Sound of Music at school, because beside some of the characters on the list, I’ve written the names of various friends I thought might be right for the role. Never mind that we were an all-girl school, and Debbie would be cast as Captain Georg von Trapp, while Lucy would have to make do as Franz the butler, and Andrea would be Friedrich. There is no name beside the lead character of Maria—of course, I would have been secretly casting myself in that role.
SOM-script3_0001As ebooks take over (and don’t get me wrong, I love this format for its portability), and even actors use tablet computers to rehearse their scripts, marginalia like this will no longer be made. How we read our books, how, why and where we marked them: these are fascinating insights into our lives and times.

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23 thoughts on “Life in the margins—of books, that is

  1. What a great post! I have a kindle, but my first choice is ALWAYS a “real book”–and part of the reason is because an eBook can’t take on the personality of its reader the way a physical book can. I will often underline quotes that I especially like–somehow, highlighting them on my kindle just isn’t the same. And finding something stuck between the pages of a book is often like taking a little trip back in time–you can’t have that with a kindle, either!
    (And–what is it with cats chewing on the corners of books? Mine do the same thing)

  2. Caron – Oh, how wonderful that you still have that script! It’s such a lovely heirloom, and a great reminder that what is written on paper has power. The real personalities of those people peep through in ways they can’t electronically.

    • Yes, that’s right. I can thank my mother for saving such things: if she hadn’t, they would be long gone. She’s now giving me back these precious things she has saved for me when I grew old enough to appreciate them.

  3. Paper is power to me, Caron, for its ability to captivate all of my senses. I lament its gradual but inevitable passing every day of my life. First choice, forever, is a real, live book.

  4. I find myself drawn more and more to ebooks…partly because they are cheaper when ordered via Amazon et all than they are at home, the selection is far broader, and the delivery time is only seconds (albeit removing the thrill of a parcel in the mail); I have also delved into the various free ebooknsources and have been pleasantly surprised on a number of occasions that price and quality are not directly linked. I do still like the feel of ‘real’ books and being able to make notes in the margin (I think this will come with ebooks as the interface improves)…it has been ages since I bought any physical books but I stumbled on an old style book exchange in Kihikihi yesterday and scored seven for the princely sum of three dollars…

  5. I love this post. Like you I was taught never to write in books. Now I wish I had. But even without notes I still love having books around. I also doenload ebooks and love the convenience and portability of them, there is nothkng like holding a real book in your hands; or seeing them piled up on tables and stacked on shelves.

  6. I love my Kindle now but most times my favorite books or the ones I want to read are not available in Kindle form from my library. If only hard copies are not too heavy to carry around, I would much prefer a book.

    • That’s true. Some of the books I want to read are not available in digital form. Also, books in which design or illustrations are important are much better in printed form, though some of the new digital pop-up books for children are wonderful.

  7. The need to make notes and write thoughts is too great for writing in margins to disappear entirely. I bet as we transition more and more to reading on our tablets and other screens we will eventually have an abundance of choices for “marking” apps that will let us highlight, doodle, fold down the edges of important pages, etc… I bet those apps are already being developed…

    • Yes, I’m sure you are right. Much more ephemeral, though, and probably at least a bit self-conscious, in that if you doodled something that you later re-thought, you could just delete it. When you do something to a printed book, it’s final and unchangeable. But I do like your idea of an app that could be applied to a digital book, which you could then draw on with a stylus, say.

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