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Highlights and Marginalia

November 10, 2014

I claimed last week to have saved from the dump a new copy of “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In fact, it had passages near the front underlined or circled in pencil.

And the pencil lines were not timid, either. This was fine, since it was someone else’s book, not the library’s copy. And sometimes, notes in books are interesting.

I’ve never been able to write in books. I can barely inscribe one as a gift. I’m not philosophically opposed; it’s more a situation of “do I dare disturb the universe … do I dare to eat a peach?”

But sometimes I enjoy stumbling upon highlights and marginalia in books. It’s often the case in our house because L’s books are full of marks and notes. Professional privilege.

My own hesitation is less timidity and more the sense that what I mark now will not be important later. Not all marginalia is equal. I’m interested to see what others note, but I often scratch my head about why.

There’s a lot to be said for making a text one’s own. Thus, L makes a backwards check mark in the margin (she’s lefty); E folds the corners of pages down; L’s 13-volume collection of Chekhov stories is full of penciled commentary and the tables of contents annotated so heavily it looks like something out of a student’s recurring term-paper nightmare.

This physicality is lost reading a “digital object.” I’m not about to argue the world will end because of ebooks (it will end because there are too many of us, and we are fundamentally foolish).

However, the experience of reading differs, necessarily, when one reads on a screen instead of a piece of paper. This may be a tired topic, but it’s not trite. Tests of comprehension sometimes show differences, sometimes not.

The nature of the text matters, as does the habits of the reader. Reading on electronic devices, our habits of scanning take over, especially if connected to the Internet.

The understanding of longer texts—either longer arguments or longer narratives—seems to be naturally enhanced by the physical book, which provides a three-dimensional substrate for our memories. We essentially map the book in our minds, perhaps remembering a section two-thirds of the way through that had no paragraph breaks on the page, or an argument that concluded just before a chapter with a short title.

The physical book is a three-dimensional tool, nicely adapted to our own three-dimensional experience. An ebook is modeled differently in our minds, and is experienced more linearly, while bringing different tools to hand, such as the ability to search text.

When I picked up Jennifer Pharr Davis’s new book, “Called Again,” I naturally fanned backwards through the pages, and my eye fell on “Yuengling.” Indeed, in this part of the book, Jennifer was hiking the Appalachian Trail through Pennsylvania.

She had reached a rendezvous point to be re-supplied along her record-breaking hike, and no one was there. She was starved and thirsty and perhaps slightly miffed. Her husband Brew (sic) had scheduled a visit to the famous Yuengling Brewery on his way to this rendezvous.

Twenty minutes later, he arrived—their record and their marriage survived. Not a bad delay, really, given the brewery tour. I thought, “Of course!” Jennifer hiked for 46 days, but the support team had 46 days, too. What did they do?

Find out at 7:00 pm. Thursday at the SteamPlant. Jennifer will give a presentation about her long-distance hiking experiences. Admission is free, sponsored by your local library.

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