Marginalia in the 21st Century

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Before the internet and the advent of digital books, people did all of their reading in print, buying novels in hardcover, sending letters in the mail, and getting their news from actual newspapers. These days, you’re more likely to see someone reading on their phones than in print; but there’s something to be said for cracking open a good paperback. One of the great joys of having a
physical text in front of you is the ability to write in it, to take notes, underline phrases, and, like David Foster Wallace, draw a mustache and glasses on Cormac McCarthy’s author photo. Archives are full of books and texts that have been marked up, highlighted, annotated, and even criticized by famousauthors from Mark Twain to Susan Sontag. For example, Twain wrote in his
copy of Plutarch’s Lives that it had been translated “into rotten English” by John Dryden, whom he disdained. These little bits of marginalia can be funny, insightful, and personal, deepening our understanding of and relationship with a text. The only problem: they’re impermanent.

When it comes right down to it, we’re not all Susan Sontag, and our books aren’t going to be preserved in a literary archive. Over the years, they’ll be bought, sold, lost, damaged, or stolen. Their spines will break. Their pages warp. And all the great annotations we make will be destroyed, becoming faded, illegible, and (in the case of texts that exchange hands) unwanted. Consider the official brief the narrator of Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold uses to reconstruct the events leading up to the titular death: after five years of hunting around, the narrator finds it in a flooded building, salvaging just 322 of the over 500 pages of that official report. So much important information gets lost: the transcripts of interviews, dates and times, and, yes, notes made in the margins. That the narrator can construct such a beautiful story without the missing information is a testament to García Márquez’s great skill as a writer; but, for the general reader, it’s a powerful reminder that our carefully curated libraries can be lost in a flood, just like the pages of that report.

Library books during the Great 1910 Parisian Flood.

Library books during the Great 1910 Parisian Flood.

Owl Eyes gives today’s readers a chance to bring that marginalia into the 21st Century. Our annotation feature allows you to make your own private annotations, to reply to someone else’s annotations, and even to submit your annotations and replies for publication on Owl Eyes, where they’ll be available for the entire Owl Eyes community. These annotations will be permanent (but editable) and, barring a global nuclear disaster or giant magnetic storm that knocks out power for the entire world, will be available to you forever—for free.

So what makes annotating online better than annotating in print? Here’s a list of some of the things you can do on Owl Eyes that you can’t do in a paperback (click the hyperlinks for handy screenshots, if you need them):

1. Write more than a few words per annotation. Official annotations on Owl Eyes range from between 30 to 80 words, and our system supports annotations that are much, much longer, so you’ll never have to cut yourself off or squeeze an idea into a tight space until it’s too small to read. Write however much you want—in a completely legible font.

2. Filter your annotations. Want all of the annotations you’ve created, but none of the official ones or those in your classroom? Easy. Just filter the annotations on the page. Soon, you’ll be able to filter in even more specific ways. Want all the annotations on themes? Done. What about character analysis? We’ve got you covered. Our built-in tags will help you categorize and filter your annotations to your unique preferences.

3. Reply to someone else’s annotationsThis is particularly useful in a classroom or in a reading group, where getting a conversation going is half the fun. You can reply to an official annotation you want to add to, disagree with annotations, ask questions, and start a dialogue on your own time and in the comfort of your own home, if you like. This is great for friends who live long-distance and want to have an online book club.

4. Insert links to multimedia. Want to view a portrait of Athena while reading about her in The Odyssey? Awesome. Want to listen to the song “Saint Huck” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds while reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Do it. Eventually, you’ll be able to include that multimedia in the actual reader, but for now, linking directly to it is the way to go.

5. Link to other annotations. I know: crazy, right? It’s very simple: when you want to link to another annotation, open it up in the reader, copy the link, and insert that directly into your new annotation. We’re working on a system that lets you create these links without having to use markdown codes. This saves you from having to flip endlessly through the text to find that one little annotation you made ages ago. (Trust me. I’ve been there.)

And these are just a few of the many benefits to using Owl Eyes to create, curate, and enjoy marginalia. As we continue to add features and build the Owl Eyes community, the way we engage with texts and interact on the site will change, allowing us to share ideas, read new texts, and enhance (and personalize) the reading experience. We’re already acting like it’s the 21st Century. Now let’s start reading like it.

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