IN 2005, the University of Chicago Library held an exhibition entitled Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700. Its curators, Bradin Cormack and Carla Mazzio, displayed various books from the library’s collection that sought to reveal the agency and character of early modern readers by way of the marginalia, marks, lists, and doodles left behind within the blank spaces of the texts themselves. They used the motto of Geoffrey Whitney’s Choice of Emblemes (1586), the very first English emblem book, as a sort of speculative opening: Usus libri, non lectio prudentes facit. Roughly: “Using a book, not reading it, makes us wise.”

This, it seems to me, is a quietly remarkable phrase, one whose dichotomy may strike the modern reader as curious. After all, is not reading a book “using” it, in the most fundamental sense? A couplet from the emblem’s accompanying poem may clarify Whitney’s meaning:

First reade, then marke, then practise that is good,
For without vse, we drink but LETHE flood.

Mere reading, he says, is not enough; rather, we must mark our texts lest we forget the wisdom so recently acquired. Inscription is a critical part of “use.” Far from being passive, readers, in their act of marking — a conscious deciding to remember — become participants in a historical body of understanding. Cormack and Mazzio argue that this places readers “at the center of a cultural process of book use that secures the continuity of knowledge.”

This is the provenance of Stephen Orgel’s The Reader in the Book: A Study of Spaces and Traces. Orgel, a professor in the Humanities Department at Stanford, has written what he calls “a book about individual acts of reading”; while this is strictly accurate, it also undersells this brisk, varied, and often fascinating study, one that engages with, among other things, the materiality of reading early modern psychology and 16th-century book graffiti (more on “graffiti” later). The thrust of the work is that “the history of any particular book does not conclude with its publication.” Over five in-depth studies, including an investigation of a school boy’s 500-year-old Latin grammar book and a deep dive into a bold countess’s library and letters, he conducts a kind of archaeology of margins, gleaning sociological insight and human depth from the calcified life at the edge of the text, cases in which “reading constitutes an active and sometimes adversarial engagement with the book.” This interrogation of textual space, presented in blessedly jargon-free prose, constitutes a significant contribution to the study and interpretation of contemporary responses to now-classic texts, while also placing us squarely in the midst of that most mysterious element: the opaque substance of the reading mind.

The manifestation of this fragmentary, spectral presence is likely to surprise readers whose familiarity with marginalia begins and ends with checkmarks and interpretive gloss; indeed, a great deal of 16th- and 17th-century marginalia has nothing whatsoever to do with the text it is written in. Orgel cites the scholar Heidi Brayman Hackel who, in her study of the margins of early copies of Sidney’s Arcadia, found a ubiquity of seemingly irrelevant markings:

Fragments of verse, lists of clothing, enigmatic phrases, incomplete calculations, sassy records of ownership […] a shield painted in watercolors, impish faces peering out from the margin, geometric figures on a flyleaf, a mother and child on a blank sheet […] pressed flowers […] the rust outlines of pairs of scissors.

Orgel believes these marks constitute a kind of graffiti, albeit one stripped of its transgressive connotations. He argues this graffiti reveals a material dimension (and a material value) of old books that has been lost to time: that is, the bound object as not merely text but also “a place and a property”, a locus of particular ownership benefitting from incremental enhancement. These were items to be improved, even perfected, by the marginal additions of their owners. This historical understanding of books as locations, as readerly edifices within which one might store practical information, binding legal documentation, jokes, and ownership lists, alongside more traditional textual engagement, challenges our contemporary perception of a book’s materiality, one which often equates pristine margins with the value of the new. “At what point did marginalia […] become a way of defacing [the book] rather than of increasing its value?” asks Orgel early on. This proves to be a fundamental question, as the tensions he unearths between these two material understandings of books (and book use) are no small part of the lasting fascination of The Reader in the Book.

Textuality, according to Edward Said, has “become the exact antithesis and displacement of what might be called history.” He believed that in removing “the circumstances, the events, the physical senses that made [a text] possible,” literary theory had effectively isolated textuality from its very lifeblood: “human work.” Orgel’s captivating studies aim to reinstate the lived experience of reading by locating the titular “Reader” within the composite sketch of marginal interactions. And the readers he finds are nothing if not distinctly alive: they argue, swerve, subvert, draw, cross out, correct. Barthes called photographs “agents of death” because they froze the subject and the moment into a kind of finitude. Poring over these annotations from long departed hands (Reader is richly illustrated throughout), one can’t help but feel that same temporal shock one experiences with old photography, a sort of thrill that is comprised of both dread and exhilaration: the dead returned to the brimming lip of life.

Of course, what these marginal echoes tell us about early modern existence varies from text to text. The first that Orgel examines, a conversational handbook for Terence’s Comoediae (1552), is a fairly straightforward account of a disinterested student’s time with Latin grammar, the surviving annotations merely perfunctory and pragmatic. The reader — the subjective substance behind the text — is mainly hidden. But lurking on the title page are two bits of marginalia in which something of that reader is returned to us across the centuries. The first is a sort of daydream, as our student, who up until this point has translated Terence’s Latin serviceably if not brilliantly, changes a line entirely, inventing it out of whole cloth: “He tooke her about the midle / sainge vnto her o my swet dearling.” This is a veering from translation to adolescent fantasy, one that will soon take a violent turn. Immediately beside this line is a marginal note featuring the formal legal language of rape, followed by what Orgel calls “pure sixteenth-century smut”: “To crak neetts in a womans cottpishe” (to crack the net, or membrane, of a woman’s codpiece). After pages of rote scholastic work, these bits fairly jump off the page. Orgel believes this use of “cottpishe” shows the homology between the male and female sexual organs at the time, embedded here in ordinary language. What seems equally fascinating to me is the readily apparent sexual violence that bubbles up during the act of reading, even, perhaps especially, while partaking in such plainly tedious work. “We write our own dramas as we read,” says Orgel, and this private bit of deviance exhumes the reader in a way that merely functional marginalia could never hope to.

Orgel also usefully examines deletions, abridgments, and other readerly mutilations of plays — primarily Shakespeare’s works — as telltale signs of the pale authority of text with regard to the exigencies of early modern dramatic performance. A First Folio in the library of the University of Padua, for instance, includes two plays, Macbeth and Measure for Measure, that have been heavily edited for the practicalities of performance. Indeed, to modern eyes, what is left out of the plays is as compelling as what remains. The first celebrated soliloquy of Macbeth, for instance, is here radically altered, trimmed of much of the complexity and beauty we now take for granted; that is, as Orgel has it, “no bank and school of time, no bloody instructions, no poisoned chalice, no spur to prick the sides of my intent, no vaulting ambition that o’erleaps itself and fails.” Elsewhere, Macbeth’s immortal “Life’s but a walking shadow” speech is cut, the slashing of the pen marks firm, certain. These editorial decisions accentuate the malleable reality of Shakespeare’s works before they had become institutionalized as incorruptible art. Indeed, little authority inhered within the Bard’s texts for the opportunistic early modern theater; when push came to shove, “the essential Shakespeare […] [was] action, not poetry.” Much of what is most distinctive about Shakespeare was pitched aside to establish crisp pacing and captivating energy, and what we might consider blasphemous today — expunging the words of the ne plus ultra of English letters — was here a pragmatic means to ensure an engaged audience. These folios and their cobbled together marginal contents, then, are less books as such than sites of evidence for the particular possibilities, tastes, and norms of a given moment in theatrical history, one in which Shakespeare’s immanence was incidental.

“As soon as a book has had a reader, it has been changed,” says Orgel. But certain readers make more of an effort than others to truly possess a text, to “use” the book for more than diversion or amused distraction. The richly annotated library of Lady Anne Clifford, the Countess of Pembroke, is a fine example of the ways in which the exceptional early modern reader reinvented books as both communal objects and symbols of a familial and cultural authority. Clifford, a woman of uncommon will, intelligence, and patience (she worked for years to disinherit her father’s male heirs to become the sole inheritor of his massive holdings, all while under what was essentially house arrest), left behind something of her character and personal code in the margins of her extensive library. While she collected many of the now-familiar English exemplars — Spenser, Chaucer, Sidney — her copy of the Elizabethan classic The Mirror for Magistrates is of particular note. Within its pages, she kept copious notes on her reading schedule — dates, locations, audiences — as well as her thoughts and reflections on the text itself. She tracked her distinguished family history through The Mirror’s poems, marked her favorite passages, and lent this and other volumes to her many literate servants for edification. Clifford’s library here exceeds its materiality and becomes something like a homeroom, acquiring an aspect of her authority meant to be shared, enjoyed, and, in some sense, feared, as both the head of household and figurehead of a great family. Her collection, says Orgel, “celebrated her heroic ancestry, chronicled her days, and served as the receptacle of her memory.” This marginal record is therefore both deeply personal and purposefully communal, a richly symbolic storehouse that is also The Reader’s best example of the expanded dimensions of books and book use in relation to the early modern reader.

Where will future generations find us in our own texts? What will they make of the tenacity of the paper book, an analog centerpiece in a largely digital culture? What can the plain, prized white of our margins articulate about ourselves? The literary archaeologists of tomorrow will need different tools and a new sensitivity to the widening conception of “text” itself — the implications of emojis, say, or the pictorial-textual bricolage of meme proliferation — to break our cipher. S. Brent Plate, in a recent piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, said “marginalia is a mournful expression of the loss of a body.” This is apt and, I think, demonstratively true. The body asserts itself in a shiver, in a stinging of the eyes, to recapture primacy over the abstract fabric of the reading mind. But marginalia is also the residue of something like soul: the sparks given off by text and mind and memory. How we use books will likely continue to change; however, our desire to imprint ourselves within them, pressed like dried flowers between the pages, seems likely to keep apace. May we always be the readers in the books.


Dustin Illingworth is the managing editor of The Scofield, a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine, and a staff writer for Literary Hub. He writes about books and culture for the Los Angeles Times, The Times Literary Supplement, and many other sites and publications.