Looking like a modern-day Moses in a turtleneck, Apple CEO Steve Jobs has unveiled the new iPad 2, and in doing so divined the next chapter in the story of how we read. Delivering the latest Mac innovation unto his faithful congregation of techheads, Jobs lovingly praised his “beautiful” new plaything and its multiple upgrades. If he’s right — and one only needs to play “spot the iPhone” on the train for proof — we are on the cusp of a major shift from traditional textual formats to gadget-bound online editions.
And the headlines seem to back him up. In a single week, newspapers have proclaimed the death of the REDGroup and the birth of a new, multimedia reader. The equation seems simple: paper out, pixels in.
But there’s something an iPad, a Kindle or any kind of eBook will never have: memory. They may be set in crystal-clear displays, but a computerised text will never show a coffee stain or an inkblot. Most significantly, flawless in it’s virtual perfection, an eBook will never age; for all its technologically whizz-bang features, you can’t take a pen to the margins and make a personal mark.
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In a fascinating and informative New York Times article entitled “Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in the Margins”, Dirk Johnson recalls the longstanding tradition of scribbling in your textbooks and, as a result, learning to read between the lines. Citing Mark Twain’s sarcastic annotations of an author’s work, Johnson rightly declares marginalia as “a rich literary pastime, sometimes regarded as a tool of literary archaeology” facing an “uncertain fate in a digitalized world”.
For me, scribbling in the margins is a habitual practice. Some sit down to read with a strong cuppa and a cookie, but I settle in with a wad of highlighters and a Papermate, poised and at the ready. Some consider it vandalism, as if my individual notations not only deface the book itself, but the intellectual integrity of the words written.
An iPad might be able to distill War and Peace into 250 kilobytes, but it can’t halt time to scrawl a youthful whim or a sober reflection in the margins. Marginalia, unlike diaries or journals, isn’t such a personal practice as to warrant secret keeping; as I sneakily nicked titles from dad’s library, I was able to open up a paperback and find, waiting inside in fading blue biro, the distinctive voice of an adolescent bookworm just like me. While the middle-aged model was busy working long hours or on the road, I spent time with 18-year-old dad — my age, my reading list — as he quoted Keats’ To Autumn in his barely legible hand midway through Wind, Sands and Stars.
These days, I leave my own personal traces in fluoro stripes, streaking a gaudy rainbow through Zadie Smith to Thomas Hardy. Sometimes I wonder how bright they’ll be in decade or two. Just in case.