Soon we leave for a week’s stay in Baja California Sur, in a house on the beach in Loreto -- my first visit to Mexico. The landscape of desert, rocks and sea sounds appealingly minimalist. I don’t fish, surf, snorkel, sunbathe or get drunk, which ought to leave plenty of time for reading and writing even with the kids doing some of the above. Being neurotic about the availability of printed matter, I’ve already planned my portable library, all of it rereading – The Brooklyn Novels by Daniel Fuchs, Boswell’s Life of Johnson and one book of poetry, probably The Poems of J.V. Cunningham. Obviously, I’m after bulk and density, something sustaining, like a diet rich in fiber.
The Boswell is an obvious, reliable choice, a volume as inexhaustible as life. Generations of readers have agreed, and for once we can sort of quantify a critical judgment. In Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (2001), H.J. Jackson, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, examines 386 copies of the Life of Johnson in 126 editions printed between 1791 and 1994. She consulted not only rare-book libraries but undergraduate collections, and public and private libraries, in North America and the British Isles.
Roughly half the books she looks at have been marked by readers: 47 with signs of ownership only (initials, bookplates, signatures); 72, marks without notes; 72, annotations; 10, “extra-illustrations,” meaning “portraits or other images supplied by a reader.” About 40 percent of the Boswells she judges “marked in a substantive way,” and about half of them contain “discursive marginalia.”
These statistics impressed me but according to Jackson, a Coleridge scholar (she co-edited the six volumes of Coleridge’s Marginalia), they represent “modest results.” She has examined more than 500 titles heavily annotated by Coleridge, whose marginalia often amounted to another book, a sort of call-and-response echo of the volume in hand. In this, he resembles Leigh Hunt, the former owner of one of the Boswells inspected by Jackson. He heavily annotated all 10 volumes of the Croker edition:
“He freely sprinkled the text and footnotes with brief notes of approval or disapprobation: `Good,’ `Excellent,’ `Alas,’ et cetera. Longer notes are also quite common, and Hunt let them run over from one page to the next….Though the notes appear to have been written for his own amusement as he communed with his books, the way in which he refers to his life and opinions suggests that he must have been conscious also of the likelihood that they would fall into other hands eventually. At some point either Hunt or a later owner overtraced many of his penciled notes to preserve them.”
I’ve never taken to overtracing but when younger I annotated books with eternity in mind. My underlinings and allusions identified in my oldest copy of Ulysses were meant to be definitive, not just personally useful. The arrogance of youth is thinking you’re Joyce’s not-so-silent partner, completing the work he left incomplete. On the title page I find such invaluable information as the etymology of Odysseus, the definition of parallax (with diagram), an explanation of the punningly named Ormond Hotel in “Sirens,” and this sentence fragment: “the madnesses [sic] of Deasy, Lyons, Breen, Farrell.” I probably wrote this in 1972, and I don’t remember writing a word of it.
I stopped writing in books a long time ago. It came to seem like a form of vandalism, and when I’ve reread my annotations I was most impressed by their fatuity: “Symbolism!” “Foreshadowing!” That sort of thing. Jackson looked at numerous “association copies” of the Life of Johnson – noteworthy for who previously owned them. She examined Boswells from the libraries of Carlyle, G.H. Lewes, Thomas Hardy, J.P. Morgan, C.S. Peirce, Willa Cather, Wallace Stevens, T.H. White and Elizabeth Bishop, among others. Most of the annotations are unremarkable. Bishop checked and underlined many passages in her Modern Library edition from 1931 (the first one I read), but wrote only one comment: “Sounds like a note for Proust.” Jackson writes:
“I had been hoping, when I began this survey, that it would provide access to the articulate responses of the lay reader, that touchstone of criticism memorably invoked by Johnson himself when he asserted that `by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours [from the “Life of Gray”].’ And to a certain extent I found what I had hoped for – the comments of actual readers over a long stretch of time, with some consistent themes emerging.”
Jackson is struck by the frequency of seeming non sequiturs scrawled in the Boswells. One anonymous reader wrote a single comment in the 10-volume edition from 1835 housed in the British Library. Next to this innocuous statement by Johnson -- “A dog will take a small bit of meat as readily as a large, when both are before him.” -- the reader wrote “He is quite wrong there.” Nothing further in all 10 volumes. Jackson’s conclusion to this chapter of Marginalia says something about the reasons we read and what we’re seeking:
“If it seems perverse to say that idiosyncrasy constitutes a pattern, it must at least be acknowledged that on the evidence of these annotated copies of the Life of Johnson, Boswell’s readers were looking for help with their own lives and were most struck by those places in which there was something at stake for them personally. If this is not the natural attitude of `all readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices,’ still it seems to have been consistently the main concern of readers of this great biography over two hundred years. Their collective profile can only be a group portrait of individuals.”
How rare and satisfying to have one’s intuitive conclusions confirmed by a scholar.