Bookmark and Dog Ear

A rightly enraged teacher yesterday showed me (actually waved at me in tremulous fury) a book from the school shelves in which someone had written the answers to an exercise in ink, rendering it near useless.

I sympathise. I have taken many such adorned books out of libraries. It is frustrating, because an annotation or underlining necessarily directs attention where it might not need to go (what interests one reader will probably be irrelevant to another). I have also, once or twice, given students photocopied exercises on which I had failed to notice the traces of past efforts.

As I say, I sympathise. And yet.

Fig.-4-Harvey-sig-K8r-top-detail

There is, dare I say it, something forgivable, if not about the lack of consideration for others, then about the impulse to pick up a pen and make a mark on a printed book. I am far more suspicious of people who never feel moved to pick up a pen for any reason at all. Marking a book is in the end a way of thinking about its content. Marginalia are expressive of engagement with what is written (even if that means writing in the answers).

One of the frustrating things about eBooks is that you cannot scribble all over them (unless you are insane). There are many ways of annotating them, linking bookmarks to notes, and there are now many ways to export bookmarks and annotations from digital devices (see here, for example, for a blogpost on so-called open bookmarks). But the text remains at a remove, unconsumed. I suppose the days of bashed-up, scrawled-on copies of books are numbered, and in some ways that is fine. It means one fewer way, apart from anything else, in which we can make ourselves obnoxious to each other. But like the destruction of any complex ecosystem, the removal of one element has knock-on effects we can only guess at, which in this case might mean a general reduction in the blood pressure of teachers and the elimination of dog-eared from the language, but might also mean a diminution of pleasure in the practice of reading

For a glimpse into the endless variety of annotated texts, visit Annotated Books Online.

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