I am about to get way more interested in marginalia than I should. My friend Ames and I are embarking on a project where we are co-reading and co-recording our readings/reflections/insights into a fascinating book by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst called, simply, “S.” More and that project later. For now, I’m doing some of the background reading in preparation for that project.
The most obvious conceit of the Abrams/Dorst book is that it is published as a book with marginalia from two different readers incorporated as part of the text. The marginalia are not included as footnotes or a companion volume. The notes are written in the actual margins of the text as a single, textual object. Not only that, but Abrams/Dorst also include several other pieces of pseudo-ephemera as part of the complete textual package. It’s really a fascinating project in so many ways.
I don’t want to speak for Ames, but I think her interests in this project focus on the dynamics of marginalia, especially between two different people over the course of many years, as is the case with this book. In some sense, those bit of marginal commentary must function like letters between intimates. At the moment, for a lot of reasons, Ames is CONSUMED with the ideas of letters and the sorts of work they do in the world.
My interests are a bit different. I’m interested in more formal/physical/material aspects of “the book.” That is, what does the form of the codex afford in terms of the different ways books function in our culture? Another way of asking a similar question: What makes a book a book? What is bookness?
I know this might seem like one of those books that only “academics” ask because they want to sound smart, or because they need some centralizing question for their dissertation or conference paper or seminar paper. But that’s not what it’s about for me. And that’s not what this sort of question is about for a LOT of people. Granted, a lot of them are academics, but there are also plenty of people in the publishing industry who are interested in the form of the codex, the sorts of social and cultural work it can do, and the human activity organized around its production. And there are more invested people/disciplines: librarians, teachers, voracious readers, builders of personal libraries, authors of books in any number of fields–academic OR popular. All I want to suggest is that I understand my own investment in this project as an impulse that transcends my own self interest, though it certainly emerges from it.
Okay, enough about the nature of the books and all those heady assertions. I want to take a minute to stake out some of my preliminary thread-pursuits for this project.
NOTE/ADMISSION: I have yet to start actually reading the book. The following list merely covers my own interests/questions/investments to which I suspect this book project might be relevant.
- What sorts of work do physical margins actually serve?
- To the extent that the marginalia between the two “readers” of this text function as “letters,” how does their existence in the margins affect they way they communicate?
- How do the objects of ephemera function as part of this published object?
- How does the physicality of this book factor into the way we make meaning with it?
- How likely is it that a book taking a form similar to this one would become a popular best-seller? What factors matter most?
This list is likely to grow as Ames and I work our way through the book this summer. But for now, it’s at least a start.