Marginalia

Lev Raphael recently wrote of an advantage possessed by paper books: marginalia can comprise both responses to what was read as well as a diary of sorts. It is a physical manifestation of memory, thought processes, and perhaps emotional state. Specifically, this piece was pitched as a counterpoint to the idea that books are simply containers, delivering the content within, with Stephen King making a recent comment to this effect.

I agree with both points and have this to offer.

I still think these lists of pros and cons of e-books or paper books miss the point. The main competitor to paper books isn’t e-books, but every other form of diversion and entertainment. I would say that shunting customers to some “container” is the least of the publishing industry’s worries. I see the e-book/paper book debate as pointless. A true reader wouldn’t care how he is reading, so long as he is reading.

Also, keep in mind that I love reading. I can’t get enough of it. I prefer to fill all my spare time reading. The most efficient way, at my disposal, is to use a software ebook reader installed on my Motorola Droid phone. Before that, I read on my iPod Touch, my Treo phone, my Palm Tungsten 5, my iPaq, a Handspring Prism (the color screen version) and a monochrome black-on-dark-green screen of the Handspring Visor. A tech geek will realize that there is a clear progression: I’ve listed in reverse order the quality of the screens of the machines. So I suffered through some god-awful visual experience, just because I was so enamored of carrying a huge library of books with me, and of reading these books at every opportunity.

And before I had a machine that can contain my bookshelf, I would pack multiple paper books for trips, long or short. This includes packing 2 or 3 books for a subway ride. I feared finishing a book and  not have another book to start. Sure, it’s neurotic; I read quickly, but not that quickly. I did not always divide my reading time among several books, so I agree it is doubly strange to always pack so many books. On long trips, I have been known to pack 8 books; now, when I fly, I can trim that to two so I can read during take-off and landing. It isn’t realistic for me to pack so many books, as I know I can’t read or finish them all. But I can’t help myself.  In my book bag that I take to lab, at this moment, I have 3 books.

My point is that I distinguish between reading and other activities, as opposed to reading on a machine versus reading on paper. I still head to the library (it’s the beautiful, recently renovated Cambridge Public Library) once every few weeks to load up on even more books. I peruse bookstores for fun; I eagerly await new releases from the bn.com/ebooks and FictionWise sites. I see it as a boon that I can add to my electronic bookshelf without my wife noting the amount of space it takes up in our condo.

Enough credentializing. My only point is to say that I have noticed that although the content is the same, I read differently depending on the technology I use. As Raphael noted, writing notes on the margins is easy to do in a book. Coming from a background in which  my work requires me to read science articles, I have not found a better way to annotate articles than to write all  over the paper. I have tried writing notes in a separate notebook, I have tried writing notes on a sheet of paper and stapling it to the article, I have tried downloading the PDF version of the article and making comments, and I have tried archiving the web version in Evernote and making annotations there.

I have also tried the analogous operations on books. Nothing is more convenient, to me, than to write on the document. Part of it is the immediacy, writing next to the passage is quick. It does get unwieldy, since I don’t underline but insist on writing down as complete thought as possible. Try holding onto a book and a Moleskin, and writing while exposing as much of the text as possible.

I would also point out that, some of us are fortunate enough to have some form of location awareness and tactile memory when reading an actual, physical document. For example, even if I cannot remember the precise text, I can generally remember where I found the words.

Another problem with e-book annotations is that not all e-book readers have a way to export the notes one makes. The readers I use won’t let me do that, and so I find myself suffering through an unwieldy software interface to access my notes, individually. It would be faster to go through notes made in the margins of text. So when I read an e-book, I write fewer, but longer notes. I take the risk of forgetting some points before I write the note; after all, one of my reasons in writing marginalia is to help me remember something in the first place.

What one does with the notes after writing them down is a separate matter. I see marginalia as placeholders until I can collect my thoughts elsewhere. Yes, that elsewhere has been on the computer (until recently, Evernote. Now I just write on this blog.) Despite the convenience of digital manipulations, I still find it easier  to thumb through a book and read a few notes or passages to gather my thoughts on a book. Until the notes-interface improves on my e-book readers, this is yet another advantage for paper books.

I think in dealing with technology, noting advantages and disadvantages is fine, but I don’t think these lists really help one decide on its worth. Given the list of pros and cons I made, I don’t see any one format winning out. That is good, because I think each has different things to offer a reader. I do not see myself ignoring paper books, nor do I envision myself reading off my phone or computer screen all the time. Not only is there a time and place for each, but economic and technological advances can limit or expand our options. There may come a time when I find that multimedia and ads have infected e-books to such an extent that I can no longer read them. Or that we may find that paper book costs increase due to demand for wood. Or that print is only reserved as luxury products. Rather than being wedded to one form of technology (whether it’s Gutenberg’s, or Bezos’s, or Jobs’s), it makes more sense to know that what works for you can change in the future.

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