Mai-mai Sze, reader, annotator. Photograph by Dorothy Norman.
Mai-mai Sze, reader, annotator. Photograph by Dorothy Norman.

Readers Make Their Mark On You

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

With so much going on in the City every summer, New Yorkers have to strategize in order to keep up with all there is to do here every week.  So, for this week, a piece of advice: visit the Library's current exhibition, Readers Make Their Mark: Annotated Books at the New York Society Library.  If you wait much longer you'll miss it; the show closes on August 15th, and the books return to their homes in the stacks on Monday.

As co-curators of Readers Make Their Mark, Frederic Clark, Madeline McMahon, and I spent a lot of time reading, researching and revisiting the annotated books now in the cases, and many of their friends in the stacks. Different reader-annotators captured our imaginations. For Frederic, it was the Winthrop Family, and for Madeline it was John Romeyn Brodhead and an anonymous reader of Jane Austen's Emma.  Mai-mai Sze's scribblings haunted me for months, and all three of us explored our obsessions in the labels we wrote for the display, and online. We've all done a couple of peices here on the Library's Blog, and also on the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Eyes, hands, text: an idea is born.In these posts and in the exhibition itself, we've tried to discover what motivated readers to write in their books. In many cases, and especially for Sze, the Winthrops, and Brodhead, annotating was a sign of engagement with a text so intense that the practices of reading and writing became inseparable. For these readers, a hand and pen were the handmaids to the eye and the mind. Looking closely at the indexes, cross-references, or simple underlines, we begin to see something of the inner lives of the women and men who annotated the books on display. For all of them, reading was a habit, and books were much more than printed texts. As early American colonists, the Winthrops treasured their family library, which conntected them to the republic of letters and their family in Europe. For Mai-mai Sze, books expanded her inner world, and helped her negotiate the cultural divide she experienced as a Chinese woman living in Europe and America in the 20th century. In the nineteenth century, John Romeyn Brodhead had a bone to pick with historians of New York State and early America. In the margins of his books, you see him holding his own in a silent debate with his rivals over their facts and sources.

Adam Winthrop added a manicule to his copy of John Cotta's "Tryall of Witchcraft" (1616)Since we began working on Readers Make Their Mark over a year ago, I've learned a lot about the history and culture of reading, writing, and scholarship, and two things in particular continue to amaze and delight me. First, there is the remarkable continuity in the kinds of marks people made from the early modern period to the present day. Adam Winthrop (1548-1623) and Mai-mai Sze (1909-1992) could not differ more as people, and yet their annotations show that they both read multiple books at once, and returned to them again and again, leaving trails of ink and pencil marks. And manicules, those charming manuscript pointing hands, graphically extend that continuity into new media in the digital age. The hands Adam Winthrop drew in his books live on today, right here on this page. Hover over this hyperlink, and your pointer transforms into a gloved hand, drawing the eye and the hand toward something new to read.

Second, and most remarkably to me, studying annotations and annotators has changed the way I read. Just this morning I was reading on the uptown 6 train, and dog-eared a page with a passage I wanted to come back to.  Then, it dawned on me: why I am I dog-earing (which, by the way, the Winthrops and John Dee did, too) when I can write an index? It's far more elegant, it's much more discrete, and it's a more specific and helpful tool for reference. By thinking carefully about how others read, I've actually started to see myself as a reader with a variety of tools at her disposal. I've also started keeping a commonplace book. When I'm through with a book I revisit dog-eared pages to see if I can find what I liked reading there. (Next time, I'll retrace those steps through my penciled index.) If I can't identify the passage again, well, it couldn't have been that great. If I can, and it still resonates, I'll copy it out in a blank book I bought just for this purpose. My commonplace book is a record of many things besides what I've read, and I find that transcribing good writers's work is one of the most effective ways to improve my own writing. For me, copying strengthens the connections between hand, eye, and mind. It's a virtuous cycle.

Whether you write in your books or you don't (we still don't want you to write in the Library's), I think that Readers Make Their Mark is worth a visit. The New York Review of Books thought so, too. So pay us a visit this week, and see which readers make their mark on you.


Further Reading

If you've already seen the exhibition and want to learn more, here is a reading list put together by my co-curators to satisfy your curiosity.  There are books and articles to read, blogs to check in with, and even more exhibitions to explore. 

Blair, Ann. Too Much To Know: Managing Information Before the Modern Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

Grafton, Anthony and Lisa Jardine. "Studied For Action: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy," Past & Present No. 129 (Nov. 1990), pp. 30-78.

Jackson, H.J. Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Sherman, William H. Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.


JHIBlog, the Blog for the Journal of the History of Ideas.  Check in regularly to see what the editors (including Madeline McMahon!) are reading in print and online, and for thoughtful, provocative pieces on the history of ideas and scholarship from ancient to modern times.

Exhibition: Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee, January-July 2016 at the Royal College of Physicians, London.

Online Exhibition: The Use and Abuse of Books, 1450-1550. Cambridge University Libraries, UK.


Did we miss something? Recommend your favorite book, article, or blog in the comments section, below.

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