Long before the digital era — can you remember it? — readers talked back to writers with comments and observations of their own. Of course, these responses had a pretty limited audience, since they were scrawled in the margins of books.
These scribbles have largely disappeared, thanks to the decline of paperbacks and the rise of e-readers like the Amazon Kindle. But at least some of this marginalia is finding its way into the digital realm, by way of a new site called ThePagesProject.com, which collects compellingly marked-up pages from old books.
It’s a project, it turns out, that was started by one of the lead designers on the original Kindle: Erik Schmitt, now the creative director of design firm studio1500.
Around the time that e-reader debuted, sparking a variety of “death of print” musings, Schmitt inherited “a portion of my grandfather’s library,” he writes in the site’s About page.
“Many of his books were filled with notations, comments, tick marks and translations,” he says. “As I read his books and encountered his marginalia I gained profound insight into the thought process and interests of someone long gone. This experience made me even more aware of the unique qualities of the book as physical object.”
The Pages Project came partly out of this experience: “The goal of the project is to demonstrate the layered expansion of meaning and insight that occurs through the marginalia left by ordinary people within printed books.”
The site doesn’t exactly recreate the experience of actually flipping through a book annotated by a loved one (or a stranger). But one handy difference is that it deciphers difficult handwriting and presents it as clean text in a drop-down window. There’s also a mechanism for readers to submit scanned pages with intriguing notations.
A few more notes for marginalia fans: You might want to keep an eye on The Strand’s Tumblr, which regularly offers up images of underlined passages from the famous book store’s immense stock. Also: BookTraces collects images of marked-up publications from before 1923; The Atlantic wrote about that here. And finally: Here’s audio of Billy Collins reading his poem “Marginalia.”