Manicules and marginalia

maniculeLibrarians are always telling us not to write in borrowed books. It’s become such a no-no that I don’t even write in my own books anymore and had continued to believe this to be an exceptional virtue until I came across William Sherman and his interest in how early readers responded to the invention of print and the availability of reading materials. His book Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England is all about marginalia — those marks in books made by responding to the reading by needing to do some writing. As book reviewer Leah Price points out, there was a time when to read was to write, to react actively. Our own well-behaved, attentive reception is very passive and was probably induced as a discipline by the institution of the public library. She also makes the point that there can be a delicious voyeurism in reading other people’s marks in books. Sherman is also fascinated by manicules in early texts (which pre-date printing) — the little pointing hand whose function was to draw attention to a passage or section. He has given an entire chapter in his book to this fascination, concluding that they are more than a graphic nota bene, they are also gestural. In the world of mass advertising and mass consumerism we see pointing signs everywhere we look showing us where to go and find a product, but Sherman points out that manicules of the past were often hand-drawn and as distinctive as individual handwriting.


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