Erik Schmitt was on the team that brought us the Kindle. The team had many discussions and concerns about the future of the printed book. Around the same time, in 2007, Schmitt inherited some of his late grandfather’s curated library. As he browsed through his grandfather’s books, he noticed a great deal of his grandfather’s marginalia – notes in the margins of the books. The notes were fascinating and gave him new insights into his grandfather. The notes were translations, musings, underlined passages and comments on history. Schmitt became obsessed with what he calls ‘fascinating artifacts’, and he wanted not only to discover more marginalia, but also find a way of sharing it with the world.
Schmitt discovered lots more marginalia over the next two years. He spent his Saturdays browsing flea market bookstalls and junk stores. He discovered actual discussions by different readers in the same book – one reader responding to an earlier reader’s scribbles in the margins. In one book he found a passage about how to survive in a concentration camp – ignore the horror around you, next to which someone had written “sounds like me”. He was hooked. He didn’t want anything to be lost because people threw away the books.
In late 2014, Schmitt cut out all the marginalia pages with an X-Acto knife and the collection has turned into a website called The Pages Project. This website is a tribute to marginalia and is delightful. In his own words, Schmitt describes his website this way:
“An online archive of book pages bearing marks, notations and other marginalia, the Pages Project explores the act of reading, each readers unique relationship to the material, and the nature of the book as a transitory physical object in a digital age.”
Maybe it gave Schmitt some comfort when Kindle, in 2011, launched a public notes option that allows readers to make notes and highlights that are available to others. To me, marginalia is meant to be private, but in this tech age, less and less is private.
The Pages Project is a museum of sorts and is really interesting to browse. Find your favorite author and see what people scribbled in his books. It is thought provoking and reminiscent of days in school.
A word of advice from personal experience – if you are a middle school student, reading an assigned book, perhaps inherited from an older sister, it is NOT a wise idea to confidently raise your hand and spout marginalia written by that earlier reader in answer to a question by the teacher!