Review of Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton University Press, 2012; 350 pp.)
Two of my favorite marginalia examples from my local rare book library show annotators doing unexpected things with books, both very much in the spirit of Leah Price’s innovative approach to the topic. In one example (below), an English translation of a French drawing manual, published in 1777, an unknown annotator has drawn a musical staff with a melody and numbers representing intervals in a D-major scale.
In the other example (right), one Samuel Maude apparently decided in the summer of 1792 to keep a diary in the margins of a 1747 copy of Samuel Johnson’s Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language. You can see how Maude used his limited writing space economically, winding his entries around pages and leaping over gutters like a hurried graduate signing a high school yearbook. Yet the experience of reading Maude’s diary all the way through is surprisingly natural, provided you doesn’t get distracted by Johnson’s text, and are willing to keep rotating the book as you turn the leaves.
H.J. Jackson has described the marginalia of annotating readers as a “contested goldmine” for scholars looking for evidence of reading environments and readers’ experiences of texts—”contested” because marginalia aren’t always the windows into readers’ minds they might appear to be. What I like about these two marginalia examples is that neither annotator seems interested in the printed texts of the books. Rather, they used these books for their basic material qualities as ready-to-hand writing surfaces. The musical annotator clearly found an aptly shaped blank page in the writing manual, whose oblong octavo format suits musical notation, just as it suited the book’s content when printed in 1777. The diarist Samuel Maude’s thinking, by contrast, is less easy to reconstruct. Instead of purchasing one of the numerous ruled blank-books that made up a good chunk of the book trade in the eighteenth century, he selected a thin printed book that was already 45 years old, and contorted his entries into limited space, while sometimes leaving other margins unfilled. Studies of marginalia almost always focus on notes that comment upon the texts at hand, as evidence of reading, but Leah Price calls us to think about unreaderly uses for books, like Maud’s, and their implications for cultural history and reception studies. Continue reading “The Things We Do to Books”