A book is a book is a book: On Marginalia and Authority.

Publishing is to make public”. This is a statement that has been repeated plenty of times over. To publish is to seek out eyeballs. Whether it is done on the individual level (via self-publishing) or the collective level (traditional publishing), when work is put out there, audience engagement in some form, is sought out. “Eyeballs” are multidimensional: audiences do not only read works but they form opinions of works and make them known. They comment, they highlight, they leave marginalia on texts, both online and in print. Do they have the right to interact with texts that have been made available to them? Yes, they do.

Is marginalia authoritative if it is never found, never made public or if it never garners an audience? It has been argued that marginalia in print is long-lasting however in my opinion, it is less likely to gain an audience of more than a handful of the same people. For example, if a codex has a print run of 10 000, distributed all over Canada. And a person finds marginalia in one of the 10 000 books, possibly on a library shelf buried besides other books, their likelihood of being able to trace back to the original creator of the marginalia is low and their ability to create an instant community around the musings is even lower. In the digital sphere, however, marginalia is usually credited to a specific person (eg. on Hypothes.is) and as much as S. Brent Plate argues that this marginalia is ephemeral, the likelihood of more people interacting with it quicker is higher. Furthermore, the ease of community building around online marginalia could also be based on the fact that everyone is commenting on the same article despite their geographical location. In print, the marginalia might be in book 528 of the 10 000. Unless posted online (yet again), can this marginalia reach the author and be in conversation with them? The likelihood is no. I take into account that entire communities have been formed around print marginalia but these are the limitations of it in this digital era.

The point I am getting at here is that both audiences in print and online should be allowed to interact with texts if those texts have been made public. Whether they can “shape the text” however will be determined by the visibility of their marginalia and the community they can build around it.

Writers are also able to determine who can comment on their work by the simple act of defining the public it reaches and not publishing to all groups. They can choose language that deters certain people from engaging with their works for example. This has a tendency to be discriminatory however. By censoring interactions the writer becomes  a propagator of an opinion vacuum.

To summarise:

1) Audiences can react to texts if those texts have been made public. To publish something is to garner eyeballs. Interactions between published work and reader are part and parcel of the publishing process.

Marginalia requires an organised public of its own to be authoritative.

2) The writer can determine how their work is disseminated thereby deciding who has the right to comment on it. This can be discriminatory.

3) Should authors seek out eyeballs and subsequently not allow those eyeballs to engage with their works? I think not.

Small fun fact, on this topic of marginalia: I am a person who had first edition Jane Austen books and doodled in them because a book is a book is a book.


2 Replies to “A book is a book is a book: On Marginalia and Authority.”

  1. You make some interesting, if controversial, points in your blog, Grace. In the online sphere, a writer doesn’t really get to define who can comment on their written work. So to say that they can define the public to whom their work reaches is, as you said, discriminatory. It is also nigh impossible. I might not be the target audience of Breitbart, for instance, but I can still go to the website and read their material and respond to it. For some publications, I might need to sign up to be able to comment, but I can still do it. The only way writers can shutdown feedback of any sort is if they – like Audrey Waters – disable comments on their websites. But we can still access her site and read articles on it. Those who want to, can still criticize her work on other forums. By consciously setting out to determine their public, writers might be the perpetrators of an “opinion vacuum” as you said and squander the great benefit of the internet, which is to offer a platform for people from all over the world to voice their opinions.

    1. Thanks for your feedback Leena! It’s interesting that you think the points made are “controversial”. Not my intention but I will take it.

      As I have said to Trenton above, I believe that writers can publish into closed groups for example and determine who can interact with their work in its initial form. I also believe that those writers can put parameters to stop people from commenting- Audrey Waters for example. This does not stop people from looking but it stops them from shaping the text by leaving direct comments on it. “Determining a public” is maybe not the right way to phrase this but I stand with the rest of the argument.

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