Sunday, 7 July 2013

David Pearson’s Foxcroft Lecture (6) Armchairs and Annotations

Philip Harvey
In this the penultimate essay in response to David Pearson, I wish to dwell on one of the truly attractive aspects of his lecture. In asking for us to consider new ways of approaching books and libraries, he takes a special interest in annotations. The social impact of books over time can well be judged by the written words that surround and sometimes scribble right over the printed words on their pages. Annotations give us a first-hand testimony of how the reader responded to the contents of the book itself. Whatever our feelings, and our library rules, about this practice, we must concede that the further away in time the annotations, the more revealing and interesting they become. As Pearson says, “all previous ownership is part of the historical fabric worth investigating,” whether the owner be famous or not, whatever the relative value of the book in hand. To save annotated books is a cause worth considering and we all know of archived libraries of individual writers that are there as much for the research value of the annotations as the bibliographical significance of that writers’ personal library. One can only commend Pearson’s view that it is our job to be saving annotated books where and when we find them.

Annotations are usually associated with book margins, scraps of paper, the edges of A4 printouts. We think of armchair philosophers and playful juveniles as readily as immersed scholars or scintillating scientists. The Latin root of the word means precisely what it says, adding notes to notes. One good deed deserves another. Any bad deed deserves further correction. Yet careful reading of critical literature, in particular, and history texts tells us that these literatures are themselves grandiose forms of annotation. While we say a literary critic is engaged in the practice of criticism this sounds impressive, as though criticism were part of the literature itself. How deflating when we claim that it’s all just annotations really, you know. Understood in this way, how many books in our libraries belong in the category ‘Annotations’? David Pearson is serious about preserving annotated volumes, but are we not in fact in the business of protecting unmarked volumes that are Annotations? Our libraries are chockfull of writings made after the bird has flown, after the horse has bolted, after the deluge, even.

Scripture itself must have been written after the Deluge. We gaze in amazement at the expressions of Revelation. We cannot help but respond, somehow. But are our responses to be thought of as anything more than annotations, no matter how lasting and profound? The Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote: “From a Christian point of view the whole of learned theology is really a corollary; and is declined like mensa.” I take this to mean that theology is an annotation of the Word. It is an appendix, a thesis but only a thesis, extra statements about God. Seen in this light, it is humbling to accept that our great theological libraries are decent, well-maintained storehouses of annotations. That they are also extraordinary collections of human achievement, eschatological signs, and precious beyond words to say, is not in dispute. Our task is to save as many of the valuable annotations as possible. 

Postscript: There is no Library of Congress subject heading for ‘Annotations’, in fact Annotating in LC terms means abstracting a text, not Marginalia at all. The Scope Note for ‘Marginalia’ says what we mean here by Annotations: “Here are entered works on notes, scribbles, or editorial comments made in the margins of books. Works on drawings and flourishes in medieval illuminated manuscript margins are entered under Marginal illustrations.” While the heading ‘Annotating, Book’ has the Scope Note: “Here are entered works on the technique of writing a brief description of the scope of a book and its author's approach, in order to allow readers to determine whether the book interests them.”

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