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  • Variants 2/3: Reading Notes
  • Tatiana Nikolova-Houston
Variants 2/3: Reading Notes. Edited by Dirk Van Hulle and Wim Van Mierlo . Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004. 415 pp. $109.00. ISBN 90-420-1821-6.

Reading notes, the jottings of authors as they read, illustrate their reading habits and responses. Reading notes, also known as marginalia, possess more than a marginal value—they possess intrinsic value as documentary evidence of literary history. Textual scholars now recognize that focusing on "literary production" omits an important part of the process of writing, the evolution of the thinking of the author. Editors Van Hulle and Van Mierlo present this point of view, stating that reading notes contain the key to interpretation of literary texts and to understanding contemporaneous reading practices.

The book intersects several fields of study, including reception history, history of writing, history of the book, and literary and textual criticism. Thirty-two articles by predominantly European literary and textual scholars follow the arrangement of Daniel Ferrer's categories of "marginalists" and "extractors." "Marginalists" added comments, scribbles, and reactions in the margins and blank spaces of books, while "extractors" "dismembered" text in a "cut-and-paste," quiltlike pattern.

The articles follow chronologically from twelfth-century Icelandic manuscripts to the work of author Paul Celan (1920–70). Icelandic scribes filled margins with doodles, pen-trails, corrections to the texts, personal names of owners and borrowers, proverbs, blessings, love lyrics, and even sagas. Quevedo's annotations provided quotations for his highly political Letter to the Very Catholic French King Louis Thirteen. Dawson's catalog of his personal library comprised an elaborate system of information retrieval based on marginal annotation, including notes about his own participation in historical events. Coleridge coined the term marginalia and implemented this process of interacting with the text. He even left notes for the owners of the books lent to him. Anglo-Canadian cookbook marginalia provides evidence of communal life, social history, and women's interaction with print culture. T. Sturge Moore never publicly criticized Yeats. Instead he used marginalia as catharsis to discharge critical reactions. Moore struck over and even rewrote Yeats's verses.

"Extractors" entered their notes in notebooks or cut and pasted clippings from external sources in preparation for future literary works. James Joyce collected ideas, words, and phrases in a "note snatching" manner. His notebooks document the process of his writing and aid in the interpretation of his works. Emily Dickinson scissored her own books. William Thackeray left notes in his diaries that give the lie to the alleged humility of authors.

Most of the works in Reading Notes draw from Heather Jackson and Daniel Ferrer, with Jackson being quoted most often. Ferrer's hypertextual visualization [End Page 412] of marginalia centers Edgar Allan Poe's marginalia with Bakhtin, Peirce, Proust, Valéry, and Stendhal. Are marginalia a form of monologue or a dialogue with the scribe's changed self or a dialogue with the author of the text? Regardless, these differences of interpretation will not affect the value of marginalia as documentary evidence of the literary and reading activities of authors.

This book not only informs the history of the book, reading and reception theory, and literary and textual criticism, it also contributes to previously underrepresented topics such as writings by women, cookbooks, and Icelandic literature.

Tatiana Nikolova-Houston
University of Texas at Austin


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pp. 412-413
Launched on MUSE
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