Summer (Now Autumn) Project, Part 6: Annotations and Inscriptions

I write in my books. Not in all of them — fiction is generally safe from my pen — but in many of them. I mark things, note things, comment on things, scribble around things, and generally make a mess. My reading is an active interrogation, a process of thinking and taking in and remixing as I go. This is why I think it’s fun to see other people’s noting and commenting and scribbling and mess-making; it’s a window into another reader’s way of remixing and interrogating the material. It’s also a particularly personal kind of historical investigation — see, for example, the ongoing project to digitize all of the markings and marginalia from John Stuart Mill’s personal library (collection held at Somerville College, Oxford), in which we learn quite a bit about what Mill thought of folks like Ralph Waldo Emerson (spoiler: Mill was not a fan).

The battered paperback copy of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science that I bought in graduate school, for example, reads like two works: Nietzsche’s text and the story of a religious and deeply conflicted person who owned it before I did. The margins and larger blank spaces on pages of the text are filled with glosses on the content and with diary-like personal observations about the owner’s struggles with his or her faith. One of my Gender and Women’s Studies students some years ago showed me a page from her used copy of Daly’s Gyn/Ecology on which some earlier reader had actually written a long and very personal letter to someone while sitting (so the letter said) at a bus stop in the rain. That letter resonated with (but did not directly refer to) the content of the book, as if some passage in Daly’s work had just accidentally opened the floodgates on a river of mostly unrelated ideas and caused them to flow forth on that blank page.

I’ve come across inscriptions and slightly silly annotations before in the process of selecting books to pull from the philosophy collection, but this most recent example is nice, I think, because it’s so carefully studious — the author of the annotations was clearly working out lecture and discussion content in the body of the text itself. The book is American philosopher Wilbur Marshall Urban‘s Fundamentals of Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy from 1930.


The reader/annotator of the text describes Urban as a “Self-Realizing Rationalist,” which is not a thing one hears said about philosophers much lately. We are also enjoined on this title page to “speak with the vulgar” and “think with the learned,” a sentiment taken from Berkeley and apparently mentioned in the text, treated here as a sort of motto.


At the end of each chapter, this chatty, studious reader provides little outlines like this one, further exploring chapter content via the relevant assorted “isms”. The annotations in this text all seem to represent ways of putting the material in order or in place, locating it in the context of a philosophical conversation about ethics.

While this could be a student’s text, the structure and content of the annotations suggests the work of a teacher to me — someone working out how to present material to a non-expert audience in need of context and guidance, putting notes in the text itself as an aid to memory. There are little signs of expertise (terminology used in the text extended and further explained, extensive notations of some pieces and not others as if these elements had been selected to make a point).

I like to think of a text like this as an example of the way in which a book is a working technological artifact, not merely a container for shareable information but a site for the processing and extension of that information by users.




About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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