Technology both encouraged this line of research and made it possible. The 1980s revolution in personal computing made academics aware that their own methods of note-taking and record-keeping were hardly eternal. “Nothing had really changed in the basic techniques of scholarship, not just from World War II but from World War I to my time,” Princeton’s Anthony Grafton, a pioneer in the history of the book, explained. “All of a sudden one was doing things in radically different ways, and so all of a sudden the way scholars did things in the past came to seem interesting.”
Soon, the Internet ensured that any contemporary reader with access to a university library could pore through old copies of Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”—not just the text, but the quirks and annotations in individual copies. Web resources include huge collections like Early English Books Online, and specialized assets like Annotated Books Online a soon-to-launch “virtual research environment” in which scholars can view high-quality scans of marked-up early modern texts.
As academics began to look at printed works’ periphery, they found a glimpse into readers’ live reactions, habits, and stray thoughts—the kinds of things that tend to remain tantalizingly out of grasp for historians. Friends or lovers during the Renaissance would conduct conversations through their books, exchanging copies and guiding each other through the text with marginal jottings like, “What a noble sentiment.” Where a 19th-century professor’s published syllabus expressed his ambitions for the class, his students’ lecture notes revealed how he actually taught.
Notes turn out to have the power to revise our understanding of history, too. When leading marginalia scholar Heather Jackson surveyed hundreds of old copies of “The Life of Samuel Johnson” in university libraries, she found many versions with notes from readers who had known Johnson and disagreed, sometimes vehemently, with Boswell’s depiction of his life. Politician Horace Walpole pointedly dismissed Boswell’s explanation for why exactly he loathed Johnson, for example; he also identified some of the anonymous figures in the book, filling in names that Boswell had politely rendered as dashes.
By closing the distance between readers present and past, researchers get a whole new window on history. “You are sort of sitting next to, and getting into the mind of some otherwise lost voice from the past,” Ann Blair, a Harvard historian who organized the upcoming conference with her colleague Leah Price, explained. She discovered the value of marginal notes while working on her dissertation on 16th-century French thinker Jean Bodin. Poring over his argument for natural philosophy, “it was looking very Aristotelian to my untrained eye,” she said. But when she happened upon a copy that had been heavily annotated by a contemporary reader, 163 of the book’s 600 pages had references to “Aristotle criticized.” The book, she realized, represented a very different intellectual achievement than it first appeared: Rather than a staid restatement of accepted views, for its time it was in fact a stinging critique of a great ancient thinker.
Sometimes a single note can unlock a contribution that would otherwise have remained invisible to history. Popular 19th-century minister and author Edward Everett Hale inscribed several books to his personal assistant Harriet E. Freeman with variations on the phrase “From one of the authors to another,” adding in one case, “So much of this was printed from your pen.” Those fond jottings suggest a coauthorship, Blair says, that went completely unacknowledged in print.
Other kinds of notes wielded influence within their own era. Tiffany Stern, a theater historian at Oxford, has been studying artifacts called “tablebooks,” which audiences in Shakespeare’s time used to take notes during the show. They would jot down favorite lines in the small erasable books, then tote them home and transcribe them in a larger commonplace book. Those lines were likeliest to be quoted to friends and family members, and to serve as word-of-mouth advertisements for the play.
Stern has come to believe that playwrights actually wrote with tablebook critics in mind. She cites a line from Hamlet in which the Danish prince assures his father’s ghost, “Yea, from the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records....And thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain.” Stern explained, “Hamlet is a think-y writing person and Shakespeare is writing that anticipating a think-y writing audience, who themselves will give a knowing smile as they write down in their tablebooks what Hamlet says he should write down in his tablebook.”Continued...