Back in December, on a grey, overcast day spent in transit on trains, I opened Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling. As I read, I noticed that the compact blocks of texts were, in places, framed by delicate lines of pencil.
I couldn’t help but pay extra attention to the areas of text that this previous reader was alerting me to. These strokes established a relationship between us, silently and subtly, but steadily, guiding me. But who was this person? What project or interests brought them here? What were they doing now? I longed to speak with them, but that connection would forever remain unfulfilled: all I had was a trace, a powerful paradox of absence and presence.
Annotations and assorted markings in loaned books are a common sight. They come in various forms: lines, brackets, notes and asterisk form a catalogue that we instinctively choose from when reading. Everyone has their own method, following a specific system of code or impulsively inscribing what strikes them as important in any which way. Sometimes they can be disrespectful or disruptive to reading, as garish neon highlighter and sharp biro rip through the typeface or bruise the surrounding blank space. Once, during my time at Sussex University, I read a library copy of Frank Kermode’s Sense of an Ending that had a full-blown feud raging within the silent confines of the margins.
These comments and responses established an alternative narrative, a dialogue rivalling Kermode’s author(itative) voice. Although mostly negative or critical, even petty in their premise, these inscriptions struck a tangible connection between readers. They were a highly visible sign of the book’s history, the various hands it has found itself in. What would it be like if these people got together; what heated debate might ensue? These various remains of previous readers’ experiences and thoughts serve as a reminder: in reading a text, albeit a solitary act, you can form part of a community, a community of disparate readers linked by a single object.
The destination of that train journey was Copenhagen and subsequently Glasgow; waiting for me there was another means of musing on this topic. After feeling so drawn to the lines in the Kosofosky book, I vowed to pay more attention to such dots and dashes, and at the Glasgow Women’s Library, a truly inspiring place with a vibrant collection and exhibition space, I came across a postcard version of Shauna Mcmullan’s 2012 work 165 Stars, Found in GWL Lending Library. The reverse of the postcard explains the artist’s process:
Shauna combed the lending library, collecting marginalia and specifically the asterisk and starred items from the margins of hundreds of the donated volumes. The resulting work is composed of the marks made by women in the books that have ended up as part of Glasgow Women’s Library collection.
By taking these signs out of the context of the books they were found in and bringing them together, the small, supposedly unassuming asterisk becomes a powerful bond between women. These crosses and stars reflect active, participatory reading, but they are also individual: it is completely by chance that they have “ended up” on the shelves of the same library. Such symbols overcome time and space, stitching invisible threads of acquaintance. The piece also becomes representative of the library itself, a place that endeavours to unite people, both with others and with literature, that they might not otherwise encounter.
Found markings in texts, whether made by ourselves or others, speak volumes. They are a visible manifestation of the Derridean trace, as they remind us that our current reading of a text, and location of meaning within it, is always influenced by something that has come before: “experience as the experience of the present is never a simple experience of something present over and against me, right before my eyes as in an intuition; there is always another agency there…The present therefore is always complicated by non-presence.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/derrida/)