The Ethics of Annotation

To highlight is to transgress, to indelibly change the text’s material being as well as its textual being. It is to give precedence to some aspect of the book, to suggest an idea requires further thought or exploration. Many studies show we prefer a physical, hard copy of a book compared to its e-book counterpart. We delight in buying new books from places like Amazon and Waterstones. The books we purchase are perfect and presented as intended by their publishers, in some circumstances if a book is damaged you can get a discount for it. I have an anthology of Latin literature I bought reduced from Waterstones because the back cover and subsequent pages were torn in one corner. I got a discount on a biography of A. E. Housman from a local independent bookstore because the cover had a strange indentation not dissimilar to the outline of a staple. Like these physical damages, once you highlight in a book you reduce its monetary value, it is no longer possible to be said that this book is unread or that it was not used in some way, it has lost its newness, confined at best to the category of ‘good’ if not ‘well-read’. Our own conception of the marked value of the words within books is at odds with their value in the market. This is all fairly obvious, you drop a book in the bath, or write in it, or do anything to it that alters the condition it arrived to you in and it cannot retain the original value it had. My point here is that the experience of buying a new book creates a hesitation in the reader from highlighting in it. We like shiny new things, or in this case, clean white pages. I have resisted for the longest time annotating my books.          

I tried to read Judith Butler’s notoriously dense Gender Trouble three times before I could get past the first thirty pages or so. In my final attempt I kept a highlighter on hand and made my way through the book. I finished Gender Trouble and I think I owed it almost entirely to my ability to highlight most of the text as I went. As I highlighted the book, I took in more of its ideas, essentially imprinting in my brain the words from the text. By highlighting the book, the book highlighted within me as well, ridiculous a notion as it may seem.

When we read from school copies of books for English class, often passages are underlined in pencil, and occasionally there are small remarks or observations made in the margins. Sometimes the observations e.g. red dress = desire, blue curtains = depression, are of use to us, we either agree with them and retain them or we discard them. I think the pencilled-in remarks of previous pupils is important for us to see for ourselves, to understand when we study a text we are a part of a chain of people, in a microcosmic sense, a part of the ongoing practice of cultural study that came before us and that will precede after us.

Sometimes owners of books go further than direct annotation of the text and write their own names on the inside cover of the books or write inscriptions to friends and loved ones. I own a second-hand copy of Jacques Lacan’s Écrits with the inscription: ‘To Chloe Merry Christmas 2009! Love Ed xxx.’ Perhaps it was Chloe who beat me to the chase and had already helpfully highlighted certain passages I would have desired to bring attention to further. At times my highlighter (green being the colour of choice on this occasion) and her pencil negotiated the page. Sometimes my highlighter went over a phrase or even an individual word already highlighted, the wiggly pencil work still visible beneath the neon green. I am by no means an expert in Lacanian psychoanalysis, but whatever knowledge I possess of it I cannot owe purely to the text produced by Jacques Lacan and provided by Routledge. We are all capable of being rational, critical individuals, and the ‘we’ here is the point, there are many of us, in fact the totality of human existence so to speak, that is in the act of thought and interpretation, annotating what we consider vital. I think part of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize lecture compliments this point:

‘There are large glamorous industries around stories; the book industry, the movie industry, the television industry, the theatre industry. But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?’

Whilst Ishiguro is discussing fiction and the act of reading, doesn’t highlighting provide a similar role when seen by another? Could we not say that when we highlight, we potentially desire and hope for confirmation or recognition by those after us?

            Ideas don’t belong to any one specific person, or if they do, they are not entombed with that individual. Marx is not some crank with ideas long forgotten and unspoken, Freud is not the beginning and end of psychology, ideas are fluid things. They don’t stay on the page, they enter our brains, they leave our mouths. We dilute them and concentrate them, chop certain details out or switch things around, add other details we deem pertinent. The first English translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex condensed much of Beauvoir’s long tracts of thought and sanitised much of the text of its original existentialist philosophy. The text is fluid, for better or worse, its translation changed the flow of ideas and its very content. With the updated translation, the translators reinstated the existentialist strains which coursed through the book and restored Beauvoir’s longer paragraphs, allowing an English audience to read the work as it was intended to be across cultures. Ideas and their presentation can be trial and error. If earlier ideas and forms of existence had in any sense been perfect, there would be no further use for thought and interpretation, yet here we are.

            Looping back around, annotation and highlighting books should be heartily encouraged. We owe our intellectual and cultural circumstances to those who came before us, whether their words are the ones printed in ink or the ones pencilled in the margins next to the former. We don’t have to agree with the ideas prior to ourselves, but I try to appreciate every trace of another human I find in a book. I will go on highlighting and annotating for my own benefit, it is for those after me to decide if any of them are of significance beyond personal appreciation. Perhaps all my books will become pulp, or the ink might fade from the pages, or I might in an act of near-death mania resign to be buried with them all. I hope that before any of these outcomes someone else may read them, make use of them somehow. It is hope I subsist on as I think we are all known to do. I hope despite the amateur philosophising in this writing that I may press upon you the point that ideas are vital, that our individuality is important, but so is the wealth of individuals and ideas outside of ourselves. To end on borrowed words, can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?


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