I’ve got an old copy of the Duino Elegies that I had from a graduate course at CU Boulder a while back. It was my first encounter with Rilke. Revelatory. The poems made me cry. Made me think. I’d never experienced poems quite like this. The margins are full of reading comments, questions, notes for a paper I wrote. The margins sort of became rows in a little garden of different inks, shorthand symbols, and Q&A’s from the different selves from different times in my life. The Trauman missing the ghosts I left behind in North Dakota. The Trauman who’d been fallen out of love with. The Trauman in over my head in a literature course focusing on the Twentieth Century long poem. But that text was a paperback, and it started falling apart. I’ve never thought of myself as nostalgic about the physicality of books, so I bought a much nicer copy. Hardcover. Still the Mitchell translation. This time alongside new poems and other of Rilke’s works. It was nice. I tossed the original version with all the marginalia (yep. mistake. I get it.), and have since still returned to the poems in the hardcover over and over. In this example, the physicality of the book, or more appropriately, MY physicality of the book matters. I miss the marginalia. I miss the ME I’ve left behind in those books. On the other hand, the physicality matters because it became a barrier to the text’s operation. Pages falling out. Eventually getting lost and out of order. Not great. Like petals on a flower? Please. Time for a new copy. And that’s where the physicality of the book, or at least a particular type of physicality (hardcover/softcover) became irrelevant. I didn’t really reflect on it, but it was the words that were important to me, not the form, or the “support” as Derrida would characterize it (in “The Book to Come”).
So what does this have to do with PDFs? The type of physicality the book takes matters and doesn’t matter at the same time. If I were to introduce a PDF version of the text (a clean scan, without any underlining, marginal comments, etc.), it would operate in a much different way that what I’ve discussed so far. For instance, I could keep it on my laptop, taking up very little room, for a long, long time without the investment of many, if any, new resources. In that way, it seems to be relatively cost free. The cost of the scanner and laptop seem already-necessary, so it’s difficult to know how to factor them into the model. There’s certainly something that bothers me about it. Here it is: I’ve got to lose the pen in my mouth. I love using my hands. The handling. The weight. The turning of pages. The opening and closing. The flipping to the index and table of contents and back to the chapter I’m reading. The feel of underlining. Like pissing on a tree. Marking my territory. This sentence is now mine. I’ve made meaning here on this page. Look. You can see it. And you’ll never wash it off.
So can I do this with PDFs and digital texts? Sort of. If you’re thinking about texts that live on the web and can only be accessed there in real time, you’ll have to settle for “web annotation” systems (see Wikipedia entry), which are actually pretty great in some ways. You can keep “your own” notes on “public” texts. Sort of like being able to mark up those library books without screwing over the other patrons. But these systems/strategies are buggy and inconvenient at the moment. And you’ve got to be in a browser on your own machine, which is a drag if you work on multiple machines (I do). And the bugginess factor gets even worse if you try to work with on-the-page markup notes. But bugginess isn’t inherent in the work/technology, so that’ll eventually be dealt with. These web annotations don’t really make a text your own in the way that print-marginalia does.
But what about PDFs? Once I’ve got one on my computer, it’s “mine,” right? Pretty much. At least one, particular digital instantiation, anyway. And here’s where things actually get pretty good, I think. PDF annotations are pretty great. If you’re working on a tablet PC (granted, you’re probably not), you can even use your own handwriting. But for those of us who have a nontable machine, we can click in the margin, drop in a note, apply styles to it, etc. We can make the note as big/small as we’d like. And it will likely exist as pop-up, remaining out of the way unless we want access to it. Aaaaaaand, the notes can be searchable. Sweet. What more could you want? A more readable screen? A more tactile interaction? Okay, those are shortcomings of the PDF. But they’ll be addressed, too. The Kindle. The iPad. The HP Slate. They’re coming. And they’ll have problems of their own.
But we’ll be reading on them. Writing on them. And you’re going to be amazed at how much you like it. And how much you miss the print books you’re using much less often.
(image “Cyrilic post-it note” courtesy of quinn.anya’s Flickr page. creative commons attribution-share alike 2.0 generic license)