Saturday, January 26, 2013

Drawing Outside The Lines: Marginalia and E-Books

I was an early adopter of the Kindle, but I stopped using it several years ago.  The books I most wanted weren't (and many still aren't) available for it, and it was hard to use it as I like to use books.

You see, I am an annotator.  I draw in books.  

Everyone told me when I was a kid that you should NOT draw in books.  But I can't help it.

Last summer my sister-in-law, seeing me read with a pencil in my hand, asked me if I always do that.  I hadn't really thought about it as unusual until then, but yes, I guess I do.  That way my reading becomes a kind of conversation with the book.  The author writes, and I write back.

It is becoming a bit easier to annotate e-books, but we have a long way to go, perhaps because we have structured our computers to think in a linear fashion.  Computers think in stoichedon, in lines and ranks, like soldiers in formation.  Which is a good way to organize information, but it's not the only way, because it's not the only way lines can move.  "Idea mapping" or "mind mapping" is another way.  This can be expanded to three dimensions or more, as well.  Think of a way a line can move and you have another way of taking notes. 

Over the years I have devised my own shorthand for note-taking.  For some things, I borrow old conventions of abbreviation and expand them, like this:

could - cd
would - wd
should - shd
something - s/t
everything - e/t
nothing - n/t
because - b/c
nevertheless - n/t/l

And so on.  Some words, like selah, have entered my annotative vocabulary because they say so much so briefly.  (See footnote 3 here, about "selah.")

At times, I've also found it helpful to invent new symbols, pictograms of whole ideas, sentences that can be written a single picture.  I can do these with a flick of the pen, but they're much harder to incorporate into a digital text.

I draw lines from one page to the next to connect ideas.  I circle names when they first appear in a text so that I can find them again.  I draw vertical lines beside paragraphs to quickly highlight long sections of text.  A double line emphasizes that highlighting.

I draw maps, and sketch pictures.  Sometimes I write in other languages, other alphabets, when those other languages get the idea down more quickly, or more carefully.  I haven't written music in books, but I don't see why you couldn't. 

And all of that becomes an icon of a conversation.  The annotated page is no longer text; it is an image, and a symbol of a set of relations between ideas and authors.

When I was in grad school, José Vericat (who did not know me from Adam) kindly gave me a list of books belonging to Charles Peirce and housed in one of Harvard's libraries. Peirce died in 1914, but his lines and words still illuminate his reading of those pages.

Another bit of scholarly generosity was shown to me a few years ago when I was working on my book on the environmental vision of C.S. Lewis at the Wade Center.  The director, Christopher Mitchell, learned of my interest in Lewis's reading of Henri Bergson.  Mitchell brought me Lewis's copy of Bergson's Évolution Créatrice to peruse.  Every page is covered with marginalia written by Lewis as he recovered from his war injuries.

I think my favorite part of Thomas Cahill's book, How The Irish Saved Civilization, was seeing the facsimiles of marginal paintings - including some racy self-portraits - by monks who copied books in Ireland in the middle ages.

My point in this long blog post?  Keep drawing in books.  And maybe I'll get another Kindle someday if they can figure out a way to make it easy for me to draw outside the lines.  And to preserve those drawings for posterity.

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