[Overdue] “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover”

I really enjoyed “Devotion and Defacement: Reading Children’s Marginalia,” Seth Lerer’s article on children’s relationships to books, and I think it intersected with Ann Blair’s “Note Taking as an Art of Transmission” in some interesting ways.

Children mark their books up for all kinds of reasons and have done so ever since books began to circulate. (One thing his study doesn’t address is children’s access to and treatment of books in non-western antiquity, which—if possible to do—would be an interesting comparative study.) Blair’s treatment of marginalia as a form of note taking touches on the significance of marking a text by hand, but really focuses on the way content is recorded and transmitted— “storing, sorting, summarizing, selecting”—and the conditions that influence a reader’s choices in the annotation process (Blair, 85).

There are some major differences between note taking /annotation in books and what children write or draw in their books. The most obvious, of course, is that annotation serves a practical purpose, whether done for future reference and recall (storing and selecting) and/or as a means of recording one’s thoughts and responses at the time in order to explore them further, like talking to ones’ self, but on paper, and sometimes a margin is the only paper that is handy.

My father’s annotations in a cheap “Craft Classics” college-era copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets (Hyder H. Rollins, Ed., 1951).

Children’s “annotation” varies so much, from scribbled lines in crayon to words and doodles. Looking at them, it’s hard to know whether these are direct responses to a book’s content— words and images on a page—or the result of having some paper and a crayon within reach.  (I’m referring primarily to children’s marking in the modern age of plentiful printed books on paper, not hand-inscribed manuscripts on vellum). Once I saw a listing for a collectible children’s book from an online book seller:   It included the typical descriptive language for used books like “covers faded, edgeworn,” and then: “some pages marked by previous owner in crayon.” Although these may not have been an aid to memory, they were just as much a record, an interior response exteriorized, and demonstrate the owner’s thought and intention. As Lerer writes, “It brings the inside outside” (130).

My “annotated” copy of “Rich Cat, Poor Cat” (Bernard Waber, 1963).

I think annotations are most always a mark of ownership and a certain kind of identification with books. The annotations we might find in a second-hand book are not usually made to be passed on.  Making Melville’s marginalia publicly accessible was a welcome development for Melville scholars and literary historians, but he wrote in the books he owned; even writing in books he borrowed from others indicates a feeling of ownership at the moment he made a mark on the page. Usually, we find young children’s annotations in the books read to them, given to them, or found in their homes. Unless these are made intentionally to spite an adult, they indicate a similar and probably unconscious declaration of “this is mine / this is my mark.”  I think this is true even of shared books or those “signed over” to new owners, as in  Lerer’s account of  young Robert Doe who, having previously recorded his ownership of Dicts and Sayinges of the Philosophers, later inscribed on several pages “Robert Doe was the right houner to this Booke but how I give it to my well be loued brother Antony Doe 1614” (135).

Back cover annotations, by me, of my mother’s childhood copy of “The Wonderful Story of How You Were Born” (Sidonie Matsner Gruenberg, 1952). (The back cover image is reversed on the book.)

Writing in a second-hand library book, “On a Summer Day” (Lois Lenski, 1953).

The process of creation and the structure of codex-style books mirror this interior/exterior dynamic.  Physically, the book is such a powerful example of inside/outside that it becomes a metaphor: “don’t judge a book by its cover.” And it is the record of an author’s interior thought and intention and private activity—a record of time in an author’s life—made public, readable, and subject to analysis of all kinds long after the author is gone. The same goes for children’s annotations and those of adults.”Such acts enable us to see not just the public text but the author’s response” (Lerer, 130). When I find marking or notes in second-hand books, I can’t help but wonder about the previous owner—whether a child or adult— and their experience of reading the same words on the page.

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