Scribbles down the margins

Owners, Annotators and the Signs of Reading

When in 1961 the yet-to-be-famous playwright Joe Orton returned to his local branch library in Islington a volume of John Betjeman's poetry with a dust jacket none too subtly modified to incorporate a photograph of a near-naked, heavily tattooed middle-aged man, he and the receiving librarians were probably unaware that his apparent vandalism could claim an illustrious lineage dating back to at least the mid-17th century. In her contribution to Owners, Annotators and the Signs of Reading , National Portrait Gallery curator Lucy Peltz traces the earliest examples of such "extra-illustration" to the several Bible concordances collated and bound by the women of the Anglican lay community at Little Gidding between 1625 and 1649. Markedly different from Orton's subversion in their choice of images, these precursors of the 18th and 19th-century fashion for the private illustration of books - or "grangerising" - nonetheless share the same intellectual intent of introducing foreign illustrative material into completed printed works to comment on the author's narrative or to dramatise the text's protagonists and places.

Extra-illustration is but the most colourful of the ways in which readers can leave their mark on printed texts after their authors, editors and publishers think them safely complete. Elsewhere in this volume of essays, the latest collection in the Publishing Pathways series now produced jointly by the British Library and the Oak Knoll Press in the US, William Sherman offers a tentative and surprisingly fascinating history of the "manicule", a noun yet to appear in any dictionary but that usefully describes the familiar pointing-hand device used as a marker of noteworthy passages that "between at least the 12th and 18th centuries may have been the most common symbol produced both for and by readers in the margins of manuscripts and printed books". Sherman's pioneering thesis outlines the various ways in which the device was used not just as a basic navigational aid but to assist in overlaying a whole intuitive internal structure for the text, to prevent, as he puts it with more than punning intent, the text from getting out of hand.

Each of the essays in the volume was originally presented at the 26th annual conference on the history of the book trade, held in London in 2004; cumulatively they describe an eclectic range of methodological approaches that are being adopted in the study of the relationships between readers and texts. Quantitatively speaking we have Mary Hammond's inside view on the early years of the Reading Experience Database, an embryonic electronic resource, now a joint project between the Open University and Reading University, which aims - with daunting ambition - to chart trends and provide insight into the reading habits of British subjects between 1450 and 1945 through the accumulation and organisation of quotations taken from diaries, letters, journals, memoirs and marginalia.

Heather Jackson prefers the subjective approach and follows up her 2001 book on modern marginalia with an entertainingly discursive assessment of her trawl through 2,000 early 19th-century books with manuscript additions, mainly held in the British Library. Her net captures not only the trio of the most famous Romantic margin annotators - Blake, Coleridge and Keats - but other "less well known but clever and interesting people" who also wrote extensively in books, including Horace Walpole, Francis Hargreave, William Beckford and Leigh Hunt.

The volume, as one has come to expect from the Publishing Pathways series, is professionally produced and comes well furnished with editorial apparatus: its bonus features include an appendix description of the special exhibition on books and their owners, which accompanied the 2004 conference, a summary by Nicolas Barker of the entire series' productions and their role in the evolution of the epistemology of the history of the book, and a cumulative series index produced by Marc Vaubert de Chantilly that helps highlight the impressive corpus of work that has been amassed over 25 years by more than 150 contributors.

For custodians of books, the embellishment of texts by readers is an area of considerable potential ambivalence: one librarian's marginalia may be another's defacement; and the same collections that allow readers only lead pencils may also trumpet those holdings that happen to be annotated by a famous hand (Orton's vandalism is now reproduced as a key exhibit in the Islington Local History Centre).

But this 25th collection of essays in the series confirms that books have always been, avant la lettre , interactive, and that the physical evidence left on the printed text by the reader as owner and consumer plays a graphic role in the construction of new intellectual dialogues and interpretations.

Christopher Phipps is development librarian, London Library.

Owners, Annotators and the Signs of Reading

Editor - Robin Myers, Michael Harris and Giles Mandelbrote
Publisher - The British Library and Oak Knoll Press
Pages - 231
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7123 4913 8

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