Annotation as a transgressive and generative practice.
By Tara Zia
“This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing.” Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
It began, as many things in my life do, with an impending deadline and an impulsive purchase. As I strolled down Broadway on a bright September morning, I was reminded of the former (my Contemporary Civilizations reading) when the latter (a weathered copy of Plato’s The Republic) crossed my path. After a pleasant exchange with the sidewalk bookseller, I strutted down the block, $8 lighter but armed with the promise of Platonic wisdom.
It wasn’t until that evening that I realized I had unwittingly purchased a limited edition of the text. The former owner of my book had shared their views through a rather vigorous succession of annotations. Etched into the margins of most pages in navy blue ink were a series of detailed notes: exclamation marks for emphasis, emotive reactions, and an abundance of questions. Standing in this literary arena, my own reading of Socrates’ questioning of his peers was layered with the intermittent shouts of this reader’s questioning of Socrates. I was thrust into a metaphorical family dinner; I had a front row seat to a three-way discourse between the text, the previous reader’s notes, and my own. As I read, I became increasingly invested in the reactions of this anonymous reader, perhaps even more so than in Socrates’ own words.
In May 2019, Victoria Wohl, author and Classics professor, delivered University College London’s annual Housman lecture, a talk titled “The Sleep of Reason” in which she analyzed the representation of sleep and the philosophical soul in Ancient Greece. Wohl notes that in The Republic, “dreaming/waking—appears frequently to denote Plato’s distinction between the insubstantial world of phenomena and the enduring truth of the Forms.” In Wohl’s terms, Plato calls out how we unknowingly “sleepwalk” through our lives, merely viewing but not processing our surroundings. On sleep, Plato questions, “And he who, having a sense of beautiful things, has no sense of absolute beauty–of such a one I ask, Is he awake or in a dream only?”
In my copy of The Republic, the juxtaposition of each line with the surrounding annotations stuck with me. Each annotation, no matter how banal or absurd, was an attempt at interaction. Each mark was a monument to the reader’s physical occupation of the world of the text. As a humanities student, some days I feel that I must be close to reaching my 10,000 hours badge of expertise in close reading. On others, I face an acute numbness when staring at texts into the late hours of the night, aiming to extract meaning and, if unsuccessful, discarding my attempts in the dustbin of my consciousness. I realize in these moments that with each text, I am, in a sense, relearning how to read.
Therefore, inspired by the fervent Plato reader, I wondered why I had disregarded annotation as nothing more than my middle school English teacher’s most prized form of torment. After all, some impulse must compel readers to deface texts, to engage in the silent conversations and confrontations that will never leave the margins of the page. How does this defacement of our physical copies bring us closer to an awakened form of knowledge?
While the exact origins of annotation are unknown, the instinct to revise has permeated human history. A digital exhibition entitled “The History of the Book” considers early cases of annotation from the late 1400s to 1870. The scribbles in the exhibit range from editor’s revisions to reader’s remarks post-publication, scrawled onto texts and printed in inserts.
Ultimately, the exhibition concludes that the reader’s alterations to the text reflect how “the book as an object is not fixed … its existence is fluid and unstable, allowing adaptations tailored to the reader or publisher’s individual purposes.” Through this lens, the book becomes less of a stable entity and more of a malleable space for the reader to transgress.
Intrigued by this premise, I spoke to Nicholas Dames, Columbia’s Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities, about how annotation transforms the relationship between the reader and the novel. “Annotation is a relationship to the physical fact of the textual object, and the fact that that physical object has a lifespan,” he explained.“That lifespan might very well be longer than yours.” Dames suggests that annotation is not a solitary practice but a living relationship. He continued that the annotated book becomes a “weirdly irreplaceable object,” as the reader has become embedded within it.
A preoccupation with the text’s physical form and the meaning conferred by mark-making drove my exploration. Professor Rachel Adams, a professor of English and American Studies at Columbia, pointed out that I may be better served in my quest to explore the history of marginalia rather than annotation. Marginalia, I soon learned, is annotation’s bolder, more exciting cousin, a term used to describe more personalized forms of annotation. Famously described by Edgar Allan Poe in an 1844 essay, marginalia is an opportunity for the reader to “talk only to ourselves; we, therefore, talk freshly—boldly—originally—with abandonment.” Marginalia allows a level of abandonment, an unrestrained digression from conventional reading, that gives way to rebellion in the margins of the text.
As a senior in high school, I developed a mild obsession with political graffiti. I cannot say what exactly prompted this, but I recall it culminating in my low-budget foray into filmmaking; an iMovie-edited 30-minute documentary about graffiti on the world’s most contentious border walls. Graffiti skulks in a society’s margins; much like marginalia, it physically alters and disobeys the codes of the urban space while simultaneously highlighting the most pressing inequalities within that space.
In the essay “Reading Graffiti in the Early Modern Book,” Cambridge professor and author Jason Scott Warren explores the enigmatic and unruly nature of early forms of annotation left by early modern “marking readers.” This framing was initially coined by William H. Sherman, who argues that many notes left in the early modern books “do not qualify as annotation … [and] might better be described as graffiti.” Akin to spray paint on a wall, some scribbles revel in their rebellious quality, which seemingly “trespasses” onto the body of text. Such records span different types of marginalia, from “fragments of verse” to “sassy records of ownership” to “enigmatic phrases.” For instance, the essay references a 17th century woman’s marginalia on a copy of the second quarto of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In verse, she wrote: “Elizabeth Rotton, Her Lot is to be neat”. Alongside Juliet’s rebellion against her parent’s wishes, this “woman in the margins appears to be telling the story of her own conformity.” Rather than fading into obscurity, the text housing Rotton’s reflection is considered a seminal piece of ‘Shakespeareana’ and is housed at Yale University.
Warren located similar examples in Bibles owned by Native Americans of Massachusetts Bay in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For instance, the line “I Nannahdinnoo this is my book. I own this forever. I bought it with my money” was found inscribed in the Algonquin Massachusett language into an English Bible written in 1685. This annotator’s preoccupation with ownership was likely embedded in the historical threat of its removal, and broader erasure of the annotator’s identity. Warren argues that such an inscription suggests how “property, propriety, and literacy are mutually reinforcing.” The annotation is a psychological and cultural artifact, not just a literary one.
Ultimately, the essay describes graffiti in today’s society as a “celebration of self.” It is a project to make one’s mark (often repeatedly) across the urban space. In a way, annotations are precisely that: a marking of one’s presence at that moment, saying, “I was here.” Just as modern graffiti artists imprint themselves upon a space through tagging, so do annotators make a statement about the interaction of the form with their identity.
But if marginalia has the potential to be a transgressive, even radical, practice, how is it able to do so? Across my conversations, I identified two leading qualities that have historically transformed annotation from a solely comprehensive practice to a creative one. The first is privacy. The comfort of knowing that no one will see your comments (or attribute them to an author) allows them to be creative. The second is a necessary treatment of the book as a disposable object. Professor Dames explains that once a text is treated as such, “only then you can add your graffiti to it. You would not annotate a statue or a medieval painting at the Met because the object is simply too valuable.” In academic environments, we often lack both criteria for rebellious annotations: annotation assignments require explicit quotas of comprehensive annotation, and students often sell books back at the end of the year. Our lack of privacy and inability to view the book as a disposable object often inhibit us from annotating with the “abandonment” that Poe advocates for. Therefore, in our academic consciousness, annotation does not offer an obviously radical or creative mode of engaging with a text. This is a loss. In the words of Professor Dames, annotation poses “a route out of pure passivity. And it may be the best route out of that.”
In the modern age, as the physical book has dematerialized, annotation has become an increasingly collective and digitized practice. Within my research, I came across the practice of social annotation, a collaborative marking-up of texts in the digital space. Digital platforms such as Genius have enabled users to comment on the margins of all contemporary cultural artifacts, from songs to poems to political speeches. In the 2016 election, the Washington Post partnered with Genius to digitally mark up presidential debate transcripts.
Digital annotation has mixed reviews. Professor Rachel Adams explains that on one hand, it has a democratizing effect: “If you end up writing something that ends up published, there are many people who made that possible. And we have this post-Romantic idea of authorship where … we give one person credit for something, so I love the idea of building that collaboration into the form itself.” On the other hand, critics decry the unreliability of digital annotation sources and argue that it compromises the privacy which safeguards creativity. Adams muses that “people get very concerned with online labor,” so compensation may become more complicated in texts that use “many, many people’s labor for one author’s text.”
Ultimately, we do not have to choose which of annotation’s benefits to reap. Annotation does not fit under a catch-all. It encompasses intensely personal notes and the radical marginalia, but also the diffusely collaborative practice that allows strangers to peer edit a novel or fact-check a Presidential debate. Our power as students lies in our ability to unify these practices: the personal, the transgressive, and the collaborative. To annotate our books with the same intensity as the earliest readers, but also, when possible, take advantage of the diverse viewpoints made accessible to us by the digital age.
We are culturally conditioned to skim. To glance, perhaps even to “sleepwalk” through the content we consume. Professor Dames explains that technological innovations dating back to the Industrial Revolution have “wanted us to encounter particularly textual objects, but a whole series of objects, in a much faster and more frictionless way.” Faced with AI, which can generate analyses within seconds and the infinite scroll of social media, we have more to look at than ever before. Yet we have forgotten how to notice. This is what makes annotation so counterintuitive; it breaks up and slows down a process that could be faster and more efficient. Annotation offers a way to counteract the pervasive numbness of media consumption in the digital age.
I began this essay with a quote from the text Reading Lolita in Tehran, which details the story of a group of women engaged in a secret book club of banned texts. Nafisi writes, “The novels were an escape from reality in the sense that we could marvel at their beauty and perfection. Curiously, the novels we escaped into led us finally to question and prod our realities, about which we felt so helplessly speechless.” In this line, she presents the dual promise of good literature: the escape from reality and the newfound understanding of it. Depending on the context, this, as with Nannahdinnoo and his Bible, can be a groundbreaking act.
In academic contexts like Columbia, possession and access to knowledge are not radical, but our comprehension of it can be. Studying annotation reminds me to confront the imaginary wall constructed between me, my coursework, and the world I occupy. When reading a text about justice in Contemporary Civilization, we need to think about not just its pure abstracted form, but also how it has and has not manifested on our campus and world. Annotation allows us to enter into that conversation at the most fundamental level by awakening us to our presence—not just the “I was here” but also the “I am here.” By entering the margins and physically occupying that space, we can create a sense of accountability between the self and the novel, and between the novel’s ideas and the spaces we occupy.