The Presence of Other Readers

In my last post, I wrote of a book in which the names of fourteen previous owners were carefully inscribed, allowing the imagination of the present reader (i.e. yours truly) to engage in charming speculations as to their personality and experience. Since then, I have been thinking about other ways in which the previous owners and readers of second-hand books reveal their presence.

For a start, there is conscious marginalia. Some readers treat margins like dogs treat lamp posts. They see this blank space on both sides of the page and think ‘Aha: this is my space! This is where I come in!’ And so they scribble all sorts of things: comments on the text, improvements on the text, drawings illustrating the text and, most frequently, thoughts that have very little to do with the text, and plenty to do with the addled mind of its reader. This is not to knock marginalia: it is a time-worn tradition, and mustn’t be frowned upon. On the other hand, a cluttered margin can be distracting. One likes to feel the presence of other readers, but one doesn’t necessarily need to know every last thing about them.

Personally I prefer unconscious marginalia: marks that were put there by other readers by mistake. I refer here to the countless smudges, stains and smells that readers tend to leave on books. These range from the common (wine, coffee, blood and semen) to the relatively rare (most of which are difficult to trace to one particular source). I have, other the years, collected several of the latter, peculiarly damaged books. One was, I can only presume, owned by a painter, for it is covered in multi-coloured stains. The other contains a series of dull smudges, which nonetheless let off the most charming smells; a different one for each page. Page thirty-four, for example, smells of lavender. Page two-hundred-and-fifteen, on the other hand, smells like smoked cheese. A book owned by a chef, perhaps?

Finally, let us speak of creases; of pages folded back, ripped, scratched, crumpled and then smoothed. An unread book is as inviting as a well-made bed. What, then, can we say of those people who favour second-hand books? That they like to crawl into other people’s unmade beds? If it is so, so it is. Reading is an intimate business at the best of times; a relationship between author and reader. Reading second or twenty-second-hand books, however, takes you one step further. It is relationship between author and multiple readers. It is an intimate, mysterious orgy.


Coming To A Margin Near You (Marginalia 6)

In conclusion, let us return to the beginning – which is to say to the future. Oa Aayorta, as originally reported, has joined the worthy ranks of the Marginalists. Whither will this move take him? There is life, plenty of life, in the margins; but success depends very much on the particular approach the writer takes. To boil all of this down to one question: if Aayorta has taken to the margins, to which margins has he taken to? In what, or whose, margins has he been scribbling?

The answer, inevitably, is that we don’t really know. Quite possibly he is following the path of Johannes Speyer and writing in his own margins. Maybe an annotated version of An Everlasting Evening is on its way. Or has he taken to the margins of more recognised masterpieces? Nobody can do a better hatchet job on The Bible than Anthony Panner, I’m sure, but there are plenty of other ‘big’ works just waiting to be ‘written all over’. How about Proust, for example, or Tolstoy; even Wdj Szesz? Let the creative defacement begin…

Considering the case more closely, however, I suspect that Aayorta will have gone down the Mary Mistict line and chosen as his original text a book that is in itself marginal (in the non-canonical sense). A Victorian melodrama, perhaps? Lady of the Eight Lakes by Herbert Sparrow, with marginal notes by Oa Aayorta. This seems very plausible. Or else an Andorran guidebook: Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Andorra, with satirical asides by Oa Aayorta. This is, if anything, too likely. No – the best we can do is to expect the unexpected. If anyone can pull a rabbit out of the margins, Oa Aayorta is the man. One can only wait and see where the old man goes next…

In the Margins of Myself (Marginalia 5)

Marginalists are a naturally subversive sort. This is their game. It suits them, therefore, to work alongside, underneath or top of other people’s work. This is their usual playing field. Here they truly thrive.

Writers like to subvert the words and meaning of other writers. We know this. What we also know, however, is that many writers like to subvert the words and meaning of themselves. So many writers are, in fact, revisers. Nothing is ever written that cannot be rewritten, added to: subverted.

It is not a great surprise, then, to find writers appearing in the margins of their own texts. Novelists and critics alike have long developed a habit of defacing their own books. Take Johannes Speyer for instance. I own his copy of Riding the Crest of Culture, left to me after his death. Once published, Speyer often returned to this book, filling the margins with possible revisions, from the extreme to the middling. This applied not only to the original text itself, but to the margins also; which is to say that the margins had margins. He was incapable of leaving anything be. Everytime he returned he returned with a different colour pen. The end result, as you can imagine, is a veritable rainbow of revisions – a multi-coloured web of wilful comments.

‘A book is never finished’, Speyer once wrote (in an unpublished essay). This text proves that he was as good as his words. Being published was simply part of the process of re-writing. It was never an end in itself. The work itself went on, albeit in the margins.

Mary in the Margins (Marginalia 4)

Anthony Panner’s Annotated Bible drew much of its power from the uneasy relationship it had with its mother text. The Bible, as you may have grasped by now, is more than just a book. Panner’s responses to it, therefore, were always bound to draw somewhat extreme reactions.

The same could not be said for Mary Mistict, who may have spent a merry lifetime defacing all kinds of books with superior marginal scrawlings, but  failed throughout to select a text that brought along quite as much baggage. Was this deliberate? It is fair to presume that she owned a bible herself – and that she chose to overlook it when picking her next victim. Whether this was for spiritual reasons we cannot tell. In the final reckoning, it may have had a practical foundation: Bible paper is, after all, famously slight, and as such unsuited to Mistict’s inky additions. She required paper of a sturdier sort – best found, as it happens, amongst children’s literature.

I hesitate when it comes to selecting Mistict’s most significant work. I hesitate because – truth be told – there are so few dud works in her oeuvre. Pearls of precious profundity abound throughout. Silliness soars to increasingly great heights, without ever hitting the sun. Mistict was a life-wire: a literary chimp: the gargoyle giggling in the cathedral eaves. She worked the margins for all they were worth. And yet she had great control of herself. She never over-stepped the line. She remained, for all she was, a writer of the margins.

If pressed, however, I would put forward the following as prime examples of her most powerful work. First, her debut: The Ladybook Guide to Fishing. The title refers, of course, to the mother text – a guide to fishing aimed at a juvenile audience. Not an entertaining read, not on its own. But with Mistict’s marginal additions: oh what a text it becomes!

Second, in a similar vein, Flora and Fungi in British Ponds. Now this is truly a classic work: one of the best of its genre. Here is Mistict at her most masterful. The additions directly following the introduction are both hard-hitting and hysterical; witty and wise: pragmatic and pointless. One has to read them to believe them – and even then one feels as though one should doubt their existence. Such words, tucked into a margin: it seems unfair, does it not, that they should be skulking there?

Last, but not least: Rory and Rachel at the Zoo. Written shortly before her death in 1992, this is certainly one of Mistict’s more moving marginal interventions. But it is not without its humourous moments also. Consider the lines on p.12, just below the incident with the zebra. Or on p.34, opposite the illustration of Rachel astride the lion. Choice lines indeed. Never have margins been so blessed as those belonging to Mary Mistict. God bless that woman’s will to deface.

The Annotated Bible (Marginalia 3)

Anthony Panner’s son didn’t think of his father as a writer – that is, not until after his death, when he discovered (in the inevitable old drawer) what has since become of the most fascinating texts of the twentieth century: Anthony Panner’s Annotated Bible.

A regular, but regularly bored, church-goer, Anthony Panner started writing in his Bible at an early age. At first he wrote notes in the margin, all of which related to the accompanying text. Gradually these notes took on a life of their own, becoming less and less reliant on their Biblical neighbour. Drawings and diagrams soon entered the equation. Running out of space, Panner finally took the plunge into the text itself – and started deleting printed words, inserting new words in their place. The Bible became the springboard for a series of strange and surreal stories; raw material for tall tales – some holy, others far from. There was no stopping Anthony. The Bible – as you will know – is a long-ish book, but Panner was more than equal to it. Indeed, if the critics are correct, Panner’s appendages amount to several thousand more words than the text upon which they have encroached. No wonder they call it the Bible of Marginalia. One waits with interest to see whether it will form the basis for a new religion.

Musings (Marginalia 2)

Marginalia takes many forms: this much is obvious. From a single careless scribble to rows and rows of tightly spaced notes; from a loose arrow to a swarm of additional diagrams; from a stray question mark to a multi-paged attack on the original author: marginalia knows no single method. It cares not for categories. It does even keep itself in the margins, creeping oft into the text itself: under, above and even on top of lines. Marginalists know no bounds. Sheets have been added; pages have been taken away. Pencil, ink, paint, sand, glue, tar, feathers, blood and beer: they’ve all found their way into ‘the margins’.

The greatest examples of marginalia represent something more than a simple addition to – or defacement of – the original text. They constitute the birth of a whole new text. In most cases this is an obvious improvement on the original. Marginalists owe their forbears a lot – one cannot deny this – but to cast them in the role of shameless dependents is, I think, wrong-headed. In the hands of a master, marginalia is a  magnificent art form. Great things may yet happen in the margins.

The lack of accessible margins in electronic books worries many – and well it might. Where are we without our blessed margins? Dispel your fear: the margins will return, in one form or another. Consider the humble blog, with its comments corner. This is, it seems to me, a margin of sorts, albeit a very public one (which adds, of course, another intriguing dimension). It cries to readers: come scribble in me! Leave your meandering thoughts here! Unload your mindless ideas at the foot of my table! Piss around my post!

Thus is the web a mecca for marginalia…

On and Oa (Marginalia 1)

A heaving sea of speculation surrounds the rugged island that is the elderly novelist Oa Aayorta. Large waves toss up drifting rumours: he is writing a ‘twitter’ novel, it will be called A Rather Lengthy Afternoon, the book will be published in the shape of a trapezium (or trapezoid), it will consist of a series of interlinking poems about fruit, it will be his last book – and so on and so forth.

Now for the bracing sea breeze of truth. Oa Aayorta has been treading water for some time now. Contrary to all of these reports, he has not been writing a new novel at all (or at least, not outside of his head). He has instead been taking part in two great traditions: marginalia and defacement.

Two great traditions? Call it one – writing in the margins, or over the words of other people’s novels is, in anyone’s book, an act of defacement. But like so many acts of destruction, it is also an act of creativity. Many of our greatest writers have been prone to a little marginalia. Think of Anthony Panna, or Mary Mistict. Controversial, maybe, but one cannot deny their powers of creativity. Marginalia remains a criminally undervalued genre.

So: Oa Aayorta is ‘treading water’? Let me rephrase that. He may be wasting away his precious afternoons scribbling in the margins of other men’s books; or he may – he just may – be re-inventing marginalia for the masses.

More on this, needless to say, later.