Erik Schmitt’s obsession with marginalia–handwritten scribbles or notes in the margins of books–began after he inherited a chunk of his grandfather’s library. Handwritten in the white spaces of the books’ pages, he found translations of German poems, notes on philosophy, and mini history lessons. “[There was] this sense of getting to know somebody, a family member, in a strange way,” he says.
He started seeking out interesting notes from strangers when he visited Berkeley’s free book exchanges (traditional used bookstores, where you pay for the books, tend to throw away anything with markings). There was a passage in a book about concentration camps, for instance, that advised that the only way to survive was to ignore the horror around you, next to which someone had written “sounds like me.” On the last page of Faulkner’s The Bear, he found someone had written “what does this mean?” and another reader, in different handwriting, had answered the question. One person tallied up the number of times that Gertrude Stein mentioned her own name on a page: eight. “Which is hilarious,” Schmitt says. “Because it’s so Gertrude Stein, you know?”
As Schmitt cut these pages out with an X-Acto knife, he began to see them as an endangered form of communication. “The world around me was radically changing and shifting toward digital,” he says. “I just sort of came to this realization that wow, we’re losing something really amazing. I couldn’t picture a digital equivalent.”
Then, about a month ago, he posted his collection on a website called The Pages Project, a sort of memorial to marginalia.
All of this is a bit ironic because, in a small way, Schmitt is responsible for the dwindling practice of the communication form he so reveres. When he worked at design firm Pentagram, he helped create the graphical interface for the first Kindle. Four years after that ereader went to market, digtal books topped sales of paperbacks for the first time–and nobody was taking notes in their ebook margins.
Kindle did launch a public notes feature in 2011, which allows people to make their notes and highlights available to others, but some still worry digital marginalia won’t be preserved as technology advances, leaving future historians without the kind of marginalia penned by people like Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Austen, and other historical figures.
Others wonder whether there’s a point in trying to preserve marginalia at all. “Marginalia has always been primarily a private form of communication, like a diary: a place for readers to mark lines with a particular personal meaning or to jot notes to themselves,” wrote Ruth Franklin in the New Republic. “Once I actually managed to find some notes [through Kindle], they reminded me of those dark corners of Twitter where no one seems to be able to spell or complete a sentence.”
Literary group the Caxton Club held a symposium on marginalia the year that Kindle’s public notes came out. One speaker, a professor of English at the University of Toronto named Heather Jackson, argued that marginalia by everyday people, not just celebrities, is important to understanding literature. “It might be a shepherd writing in the margins about what a book means to him as he’s out tending his flock,” she told the New York Times. “It might be a schoolgirl telling us how she feels. Or maybe it’s lovers who are exchanging their thoughts about what a book means to them.”
Schmitt doesn’t think the Kindle’s version of marginalia is comparable to the paper version, and not just because it will be harder to preserve. “There is also an aesthetic component,” he says. “The sheer beauty of ink on paper, the call and response quality of one person’s awkward blue ink question and another reader’s response in elegant black script on the same page, the odd illustrative/doodle marks people leave on the page that seem to capture a state of mind, the mark left in anger that tears into the paper.”
He hopes The Pages Project will spark conversation around new ways of carrying marginalia into the digital age, but also, that it will give notes in books the respect he thinks they deserve. “I do think it’s important to preserve some of these things, just as a moment in time when there was a unique form of communication that evolved by ordinary people scribbling in books.”