Virtual marginalia

Published on 2024-01-12

I own an e-reader. I would have gotten it a year or two before I moved out for university, and when I left, I only ended up taking two books with me: "Inventing the Future" by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, and "Xenofeminism" by the Laboria Cuboniks collective. I took them less because I liked physical books and more because they were a graduation gift from an old friend; one that went a long way towards helping me get through the awkward and painful transition to university.

I suppose having an e-reader--having all of my books in digital form--was very powerful in my long journey away from my old home. I actually got to take them with me. While there may be few books on my shelf, there are hundreds of e-books on my Kobo, all DRM-free.

Now that I've been doing this for a number of years, I'm starting to wonder if my investment in e-books is misplaced. Intellectually, I have a relationship to each of the books I've read. When that book is printed on paper, then it runs parallel to the one I have with the physical object. When my books are digital, then the physical relationship is lost. While I may have a physical relationship with the e-reader itself, I struggle to form the same relationship to the individual books.

One of my favourite musical projects is Masakatsu Takagi's "Marginalia" series. It's a collection of 145 tracks, grouped across seven albums, where he performs improvised songs in a kind of unusual way:

"I opened all the windows to welcome the sounds of nature and played the piano without any sort of preparation: no overdubbing, no writing, no editing or mixing, no fixing…just as it is, he describes. "What you are listening now are raw, improvised piano recording where the sounds of nature and the musical notes are recorded at the same time, in harmony without any discrimination. I love to think that nature might also listen to my piano. The nature is the melody. The piano is the harmony."


It's hard to explain, but when I listen to the Marginalia series, I get this overwhelming sense that there is an incredibly deep intimacy between the performer and nature.

This is interesting to me, I think, because it's not the way I feel I've been conditioned to relate to the world around me. Ostensibly, I am a scientist, and my role is to be a passive, objective observer of the world. To relate to the world in the way Masakatsu Takagi does would be to violate a boundary intrinsic to this worldview.

Scientific apostasy

When I was in my first year of university, I took a course on English literature. In it, my professor had us read a series of books, and when we convened for lecture time, he'd lecture us on his interpretation. What really blew me away, though, was how much time and energy he invested in understanding the story of each author's life.

This was really new to me. In high school, I'd say, my professors all seemed to believe in the death of the author--the idea that a particular reader's personal interpretation of the text matters more than what the author presumably intended. And I did, and still do, value the death of the author quite a bit. After all, there is only one thing an author might have intended a particular text to say, and there's very little that can tell us about the world. But my professor didn't seem to feel the same way. Each new unit started with a lengthy introduction to the complete life of the author as we understood it, and the rest of the lectures would constantly refer back to specific events in their life that my professor believed might have influenced the nature of the story.

That bothered me a lot for a while. I found it exhausting and pointless. Having never been exposed to someone who still follows this traditional model of literary criticism, I couldn't wrap my head around why he didn't believe in the death of the author. But I got used to it. By the end of the semester, I enjoyed that course quite a bit, and I started to realize my professor was actually a pretty cool guy.

The death of the author, I believe, is a pretty important and useful idea, but what I didn't realize at the time is that it asks of us to be scientists; to stand in the sidelines, interpreting a text empirically. Ironically enough, it calls for a certain amount of objectivity, ignoring the larger world in which that text exists.

Every piece of media you interact with constitutes a relationship between you and its creator. It's a relationship mediated by the text. You can never really get rid of the author. I'm certainly one to believe that all of our creative works are an expression of who we are. But you can hide them, and when you do, that relationship is reframed as a relationship between you and the text itself.

If I were to kill the Masakatsu Takagi in my head, then I don't think the Marginalia series would be all that great. At best, it'd be a series of somewhat interesting experimental piano albums overlaid with the sounds of birds singing and wind blowing. What makes it so great to me is that I can really feel the connection between the performer and his environment; that he is playing the harmony to nature. His music is the marginalia of the text that is the natural world.

We connect to a text through active listening, serious engagement, and an honest, open-minded willingness to understand. By scribbling notes into the margins, by underlining, by highlighting, by generating meaning from the words on the page. The author pours their creative energy into a text and we do so in turn. When a seriously invested reader engages with a text, it can become more than the author had ever imagined. Those are the twin relationships we form with a text: physical and intellectual, forever in parallel. Marginalia is not just a compliment to the original text; it is a transformation of that text into something new; something intimately personal.

I'm very fortunate to have the technical knowhow to get my hands on DRM-free e-books. Most e-books people read are locked down by Amazon, or Barns and Noble, or one's literary kleptocracy of choice. I don't feel like I'm exaggerating when I say that DRM is one of the greatest injustices in the history of publishing. The printing press made reading books accessible to everyone by making them ubiquitous. DRM is kind of like a compromise on the ubiquity of published works: you can have your books now, but I can take them away from you whenever I want. When Amazon has full control over the text, the relationship between the author and the reader is ultimately mediated by Amazon, not the text itself.

This is how I justified reading e-books all these years, and I do think there's some merit to it. When you eschew DRM, you can still have a bit of that physical relationship to the digital information. You can keep plain text files in a folder on your computer where you scribble down your notes, you can use the annotation feature in your e-reader to keep them "in" the text itself... it's not as visceral as doing it by hand, but that doesn't make it any less real.

The problem I keep running into, though, is that this system I have exists in spite of the world in which I operate. It's a hack, and it's not for most people. Physical books lend themselves well to physical relationships; creating something similar with an e-book feels a lot like swimming against the current of a stream.

I feel like we almost have a complete ecosystem. We have Project Gutenberg, Library Genesis, Calibre, and we even have some open source e-ink devices, but I feel like we're missing something. Maybe the tools you need to fully invest yourself in a digital text aren't as close-knit as I want them to be, so any "solution" I find will always feel patched together. Or maybe it's just that I haven't found a document annotation system that fits my needs.

Whatever it is, it's not there yet, and the path of least resistance remains.

This, I suspect, must have been what people were talking about when they expressed to me that reading physical books just "felt" better to them, without being able to give me a concrete reason why. It's not necessarily that reading physical books is intrinsically better than reading them on your screen; neither is intrinsically better than the other. The problem is that the infrastructure is not there to foster the same kind of visceral relationship you get when interacting with a physical text.

Without that infrastructure, we're just empiricists, interacting only with what the text is, rather than what it could be.

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