In the Margins of the Digital Age: Thoughts on Immersive Reading

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Today I begin an ongoing series called The Digital Margins. In the first part, I explore marginalia’s role in social media.

“Digital technology, rather than destroying the tradition of marginalia, could actually help us return it to its gloriously social 18th-century roots.” –Sam Anderson, “‘What I Really Want Is Someone Rolling Around In The Text’”; New York Times Magazine, March 4, 2011

In the latest New York Times Magazine, Sam Anderson articulates an idea that I have tried to put to paper for several months now. The idea has allowed me to give this blog some type of meaning, some purpose in the vast expanse of the Blogosphere, yet I have been unable to express it in its fullest terms. This article is my attempt to finally express what I see as the future, whether good or bad, of reading in the digital age. Riffing off of Anderson’s “riff” in the NYT Magazine, I want to begin a conversation about the role of what he terms “e-marginalia”: how can new technologies that have brought back a social aspect of reading change the way we read and interact with books? Do digital technologies provide more of a social reading experience, or do they hinder the type of immersive reading that, for centuries, we have honored and romanticized?

I will begin with some reflections on my own personal reading experiences and moments in my life where I have seen developments and shifts in the way I interact with books — and, as a consequence, the world around me. This article is meant as both a critical response to the ideas Anderson brings up and as a narrative about my own experience as a reader. Hopefully, I can begin a debate about whether or not digital reading is (or will) bring back a more social reading and if this social reading will bring like-minded readers together or push them apart even further.


Marginal Beginnings

blake

The above photo represents one of the first experiences I ever had writing in the margins. It is a copy of “London” by William Blake, the first poem in “The Romantics” section of an A-level anthology I used in my English Literature A-level course. I had never written in the margins of any book before that class, partly because I had never been told I could do it and partly because I had never been given my “own” book to use as I liked. My English teacher would encourage me and my fellow classmates to point out the most important aspects of a text and to mark them in similar ways so that we could easily reference these ideas in an exam. I began to set up my own crude system of marginal marking: underlines meant something different than circles, brackets indicated a completely different set of criteria, etc. It was my first attempt to organize my thoughts about a text and to hone my skills of analysis — those things that are so useful to critical readers.

Today, I look at this sheet and see a confusing mess: I have no idea what mark meant what and would be quite useless using a copy of this poem in an exam today. Yet I also notice a budding interest in what works in a good poem (most likely based on the teacher’s comments in class), and notes to myself are scribbled alongside the text and take up most of the page. There was an attempt in these pages to keep knowledge in one place so that in the future I could recall all of those things I had thought about in previous readings.

I remember having a sense that all of this new energy for reading and understanding “how” poetry works would be lost if I didn’t write down every word I heard or thought about William Blake’s poem. I would never lose that experience of reading again; every time I opened the book, it would come back to me in its full memory. Of course, this never happened. I read these words now and remember aspects of it, but I cannot recreate the analysis I had come up with when I wrote down all of those terms. I re-experience the poem in a different way today than I did back then. Yet the record remains, and I can still recall the sense of understanding something deeper than I had in the past. In context, another reader could come across these notes and rediscover something about the poem that I would not, despite the fact that I was the one who wrote those words. Certainly, I had not yet codified my own language of marginalia, yet looking at these early marginal notes, I am aware of my first attempts to enter into a text and to play with the text, to not accept the text at face value or, at the very least, to understand one aspect of a text’s “deeper meaning” and to back it up with some type of evidence.

Anderson makes this point in his own reflections on marginalia, saying that annotating a text becomes “a way to not just passively read but to fully enter a text, to collaborate with it, to mingle with an author on some kind of primary textual plane.” * For the first time in my life, I did this. I visualized Blake’s London and all of the “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” it encompassed. I could speak of the poem on multiple levels, and I saw his style effect the short little poems I wrote to myself. To this day, Blake’s poetry has stuck with me, and even though my marginal notes overwhelm me (I really can’t remember the context of some of the notes), I can still re-enter the text in a way I cannot with other things I have read in the past.

A New Marginal Language

gatsby


As I moved on to university, my reading abilities began to improve and my interest level in the literature I read increased. But I would only mark up the books I read for class. For some reason, marking and annotating still felt like an academic exercise rather than a way to “enter a text,” as Anderson puts it.

This changed when I was assigned to read The Great Gatsby for a gen-ed humanities class. To save money, I bought a used version of the book and realized that many of the pages had been highlighted and annotated. I had no idea who wrote in these margins before me, but seeing them brought a sense of comfort to me. It left me with the idea that someone else had meditated on the same pages as I had and that this book brought to them some satisfaction. I was able to respond to the previous reader’s observations with my own. This interaction with the text reflected an even more complex reading experience than the notes in my A-level textbook. Instead of responding to a teacher’s words or trying to keep every thought intact, I was having a conversation with the text. I pictured myself at a corner table in a Paris cafe, countering points made by the pencil-and-highlighter commentator that had owned the book before me, with Fitzgerald sitting beside us at the table, guiding the conversation without correcting it. This conversation represented a different type of reading — one that was more nuanced than the mere note-taking for a class or for an exam.

I have read The Great Gatsby three times since then: twice in other classes, and once for fun. Each of those times, I have added notes to the text and have responded back to the notes left from past readings. The previous reader’s yellow highlights and pencil markings still remain (I always mark in pen). The image here shows a page of this book. There are at least two different “types” of underlined text here, both from different reading sessions (and probably had a different “code” for my purposes at the time). The yellow highlights were from the reader before. If I were to lend this book out, I would hope that the reader would add his or her own markings, and we could continue the conversation. Ultimately, this back-and-forth conversation is one goal of those proponents of marginalia, and it is a goal that Anderson feels the digital age might fulfill. He expresses this idea in his discussion of reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest:

This gave me an epiphany — a grand vision of the future of social reading. I imagined a stack of transparent, margin-size plastic strips containing all of my notes from “Infinite Jest.” These, I thought, could be passed out to my friends, who would paste them into their own copies of the book and then, in turn, give me their marginalia strips, which I would paste into my copy, and we’d all have a big virtual orgy of never-ending literary communion. *

Even though he says this is a “hopelessly clunky” idea, it can be achieved in a powerful way on the Internet with social media. Although passing around the same book and adding various marginal notes to the same text happens all of the time, it can happen on a large scale with the Internet. However, this might require a reading experience that is devoid of the social, visual, and sensual cues of the physical book. Abandoning the physical book is something that is difficult to do because of all of those cues readers look for.

Onto the Digital Age: A Shift in Reading

As a graduate student, I developed my own code of marking and note-taking that became universal. Once the code was established, I never deviated from it. It was a complicated code — one that only I could understand and one that would not translate my thoughts on a book to another reader. I used lines in the margins to mark passages, dots to mark smaller ideas, and stars to mark larger ideas worth returning to at a later time. This worked for me because I was reading multiple novels as well as literary criticism and theory each week and had to be prepared for seminar discussions. On top of that, I was teaching, and had to prepare notes for each lesson. Each dot or star represented larger notes that I would add to my notebook. I also had to develop these ideas for seminar papers, so even though I was reading and annotating with the idea of having a conversation with the text, I knew that these conversations would continue on in the formal process of writing essays at the end of each semester. Because of this, my annotations were a means to an end rather than a place to spark conversation.

Then I bought a Kindle.

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My interest in the Kindle went beyond the idea that I could carry around many books, articles, magazines, and newspapers on one small device, although that was a motivation. I was in the process of writing my master’s thesis which explored how major shifts in printing technology sparked the development of new and exciting literary genres. Although my thesis focused on how this happened in 19th-century America, I wanted to be a part of what I saw as a new shift in reading technology: the ebook.

My Kindle became a place for me to experiment with the idea that ebooks could provide a powerful place to interact with books, and that reading on this device could bring more than a convenient place to store a large amount of books and magazines. The question for me was if reading was as pleasurable an experience in an ereading device as it was in a printed book. At first, I was not convinced. it took a while for me to get used to reading on this type of device: pages were formatted differently, and there weren’t the spatial cues that I had in a book. I had to relearn how to annotate what I read, and I could no longer depend on the annotation code that I had developed as a graduate student. I was able to add notes to the text, but this required typing on a small keyboard and felt like a disembodied experience. I found myself leaving notes and highlighting passages using the Kindle’s annotation capabilities, but realized that I was limited to a uniform system. It threw me off at first, but now I can see its benefit for the social aspect of reading.

Anderson writes about how these reading devices might help us create a database of e-marginalia: if we wanted to read what others were saying about a book in real time, we could log into the system while reading a book and see what others were saying or what other readers had said in the past. Limited by the annotation system of a device like the Kindle, we might create a uniform system of annotation that would give us instant access to how others were reacting to the same book. For example, we could see that others had highlighted a specific passage and click through to read who highlighted the passage and what they were saying about the book on social media websites linked to the book. Instead of hindering our interaction with text, it would allow us to read in an advance, immersed way, although in a much different context than before.

On a basic level, this is already happening. Amazon has a database for social highlights (where you can see what your friends have highlighted in a single book), and the Kindle allows you to tweet and share your highlights as you read. Now that I am used to the device itself, I use these features regularly and have found they provide some of the interactivity with text that I have with books, except in a social, rather than meditative and personal, way. On my twitter feed, @criticalmargins, you will find some of these observations, and they are marked with hashtags for readers to find them. While this is a great experience, I still wonder what is missed by reading in this way. Also, what does the future hold? Will we lose out on something when we mark up a book with a cursor instead of a pen?

Conclusion: A Critique of What’s to Come

With all of this optimism about the future of reading comes some serious questions about its lasting viability. At this point, we can only speculate about whether or not digital technology provides the social interaction of reading that seems to have disappeared from our culture over the past couple of generations. I do feel that the constant need to share with the world can (and does) hinder that sense of full immersion in the text, or the idea Anderson calls “rolling around in the text.”* The reason I feel this way is because social media, and much of the Internet, is all about the surface-level of ideas. We can be part of the conversation through twitter and the like, but the conversation is more like a shallow, drunken chat at a cocktail party rather than a thoughtful round table discussion in a graduate seminar or in a book club.

Therefore, I look forward with a bit of skepticism about digital reading’s lasting viability. We know that trends change quickly on the Internet. As a society, we are quick to move on to new technologies, and at least books have changed very little over the past couple of centuries. Smartphones, the Kindle, the Nook, and the iPad have changed and continue to change every year, sometimes within months or even weeks. New features are added and old features are taken away. So, while I have hope that a digital reading experience will provide a new interactive reading experience, I wonder if we are yet where we need to be. I also hold on to my notebook and have a shelf of books to get through, and I have no intention of replacing those at this point. But I still look forward to what a digital reading experience can offer — even if it is only a passing phase.

 

About Kevin Eagan

Kevin Eagan (@criticalmargins) is a freelance editor, writer, and teacher who lives in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. In addition to writing about book technology and teaching college students how to write, Kevin works as an associate editor for punctum books. Previously, he was the books editor for Blogcritics. You can also follow him on Google+ or check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.

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