Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, July 13, 2009

marginal technology

Via Adam Keiper, my editor here at The New Atlantis, I see this fascinating story about . . . well, several things, but primarily about the efforts of Bob Stein — founder of the Voyager Company and then, more recently, the Institute for the Future of the Book — to create more deeper and more meaningful communities of reading. Virtual communities, that is: Stein says, “This is the billion-dollar question, How do you model [an online] conversation, a real conversation, among a large number of people?” He’s trying to achieve this primarily through CommentPress, which is basically a celebration of marginalia. (Here’s a long, scholarly article on CommentPress by Kathleen Fitzpatrick.)

How you feel about this project may largely depend on how you feel about actual marginalia. When you check out a library book, or peruse a used book, that has commentary in the margins, are you disgusted or intrigued? My default position is disgust, but I think that’s largely because most marginal commentary is not especially intelligent. It also tends to be sloppy — Can't you people underline more neatly? Please! — and intermittent. More often than not it starts out boldly but peters out altogether after a few pages.

Of course, if you know and are interested in the person writing in those margins the situation is wholly different. People used to lend books to the poet Coleridge so they could get them back with the great man’s annotations, which they typically found more interesting that the books themselves. When I was writing my biography of C. S. Lewis I took great delight in looking through volumes he had owned to see what he had written in the margins. In that case also it was what the other writers had prompted Lewis to think that intrigued me. The margins were what mattered to me; the text itself was, to my mind, . . . well, marginal. At least for that moment.

The question I have about CommentPress, then, is this: Where does it direct our attention? Is it about illuminating the books under discussion? Or are the books there instrumentally, to serve as prompts for community-building? I suppose this will vary from case to case, but Bob Stein’s remarks suggest that the real goal is to connect people, with books as means to that end. Which is not a problem, as far as I’m concerned; that’s a worthy use for books.


  • I buy the majority of my textbooks used, which means that I occasionally end up with a book that's been underlined and commented in. Generally, it's immensely annoying, largely because of how inane the comments are.

    On the other hand, sometimes I'll borrow a book from a professor or they'll photocopy a chapter of a book they own and pass it out in class in which case I get to see *their* comments, which can often be interesting and/or enlightening.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    You know, Jay, that reminds me of an experience I had in grad school, back when photocopying practices were looser than they are now. In my literary theory class we had an enormous Kinko's course pack copied from the professor's books, which were all copiously underlined and annotated. We used to joke that there was no point going to class because we knew from the marks on the books what he thought important, and often what his views were.

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