In the margins


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Some people write in their books; others view this as desecration. The practice of adding handwritten notes, or marginalia, to books has been going on for centuries. (The Evolution of Marginalia: Kiri L. Wagstaff)

Our love affair with the e-book is showing no signs of abating but like many people I’m still attached to real books and have shelves (and boxes) full of books I can’t bear to part with. Books have been a huge part of my life, I’ve always been an avid reader and novels have often been a refuge for me, a place to lose myself for an hour or two or three.

When e-books came along I swore I’d never convert but one Kindle app and three years down the road almost every novel I read now is read on Kindle, and for me it’s joy to walk around with an endless library on tap. But I still find it difficult to read anything other than novels, newspapers and magazines online. If I have to work with a text, rather than just read it for pleasure, wherever possible I work with a real book.  In a similar way, I still find it difficult to adapt to digital note taking, I have tried and failed to ‘get’ Evernote. I still carry around a leather notebook that jostles for space with my iPad in my bag. For me there’s something about the physical act of writing, turning pages, and taking notes that helps my concentration and ability to absorb ideas and concepts. It is how I learnt to learn and so far has been quite impervious to change. And one other thing hasn’t changed, I still wouldn’t dream of writing notes in the book itself.

I listened to R3 programme on marginalia earlier in the year, the practice has been going on for centuries and is a well established focus for historical research. Most e-readers now allow you to mark up and make comments digitally, and whilst some people are worried about how these digital marginalia can be preserved for future generations, software developers are busy adding functionality to our e-readers to enable us to share our mark ups, comments and reflections.

I find this whole topic fascinating and challenging. As someone who’s always been fanatical about not marking books (I used to have a whole selection of bookmarks to prevent page folding) the concept that another reader’s written annotations could add value rather than detract from a text was a bit of an anathema to me. I admit I find other people’s scribbling distracting, it leads my eye and without great attention I’m pulled into the previous reader’s slipstream taking their ideas, questions and interpretations rather than forming my own. 

But the programme challenged me to think again. As have various posts and articles I’ve read about the topic. One researcher, Cathy Marshall explored the value students drew from using second-hand annotated text books. Unlike me these students were drawn to  marked up copies in libraries for the handed down wisdom of former readers. When I’ve discussed this with other people, they’ve often felt the same, for them annotations add something new to the reading exprience.

This got me thinking, aren’t annotations on texts similar to shared wikis and collaborative blogging?  They’re really not that different to digital curation and the collective sense making we co-create in digital spaces which I’m all for.  So I’m intrigued by why I’m so uncomfortable with making or seeing annotations in the margins of my books?

The best answer I can give is that it’s an emotional response for me, a reverence bred in childhood where books were something special to be cherished. But I’m beginning to see how annotation can also be read as a form of respect.  I’m beginning to think maybe I’m being short sighted, a creature of habit stuck in old ways, and that perhaps I should take a more collaborative approach and start marking up. If you’re interested, these posts all discuss the value of historical and digital marginalia. 

Despite all of this I still find myself loathe to pick up that pen and highlighter! 

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. How do you feel about people writing on books? Does it make your blood boil or fill you with curiosity to see what marks have been left for you the future reader?

Just like starting over…

So this weekend I’m packing my husband into a car and waving him off hundreds of miles up the country to spend a year at University. He’ll be back for holidays and some weekends but essentially after many, many years of living together we will be living apart for the next year. This isn’t the place to write about how proud of him I am (though I am hugely) but I do want to share how this process is forcing us us both to look afresh at how and in what ways we take each other for granted. We’re seeing how over the years our behaviours have moulded into a set of well worn practices and adjustments. Over time in a relationship our actions (& inactions) become unspoken, implicit, and the familiarity of our reliance on one another often forms a ring of care around us which is loving and comfortable.

Yet at the same time familiarity can breed contempt, or less harshly, we take each other for granted. So whilst it’s going to be a huge change for both of us I’m also eager to see where it will take us. I have a feeling it’s going to be good for us. It’s making us reflect on the things we do for each other and the emotional support we give one another. Rather than staying in that comfortable safe pattern we’ll be able to explore new experiences, our relationship will have a new rhythm to shake it up. And I’m betting we’ll learn to appreciate each other all over again and for different things.

Our life together is so precious together,
We have grown – we have grown,
Although our love is still special,
Let’s take our chance and fly away somewhere alone,

It’s been so long since we took the time,
No-one’s to blame,
I know time flies so quikly,
But when I see you darling,
It’s like we both are falling in love again,
It’ll be just like starting over – starting over

And it’s got me wondering about what we miss out on by not shaking the tree occasionally.

At work, as at home, it’s easy to slip into our comfy slippers and relax into well worn roles. Who in your team is doing what they’ve always done because they’ve always done it? I bet there’s someone who is always there with a kind word and thoughtful touch, do you and the team take that emotional support for granted?

What might happen if you shook things up and found new roles and challenges for everyone? What latent talents, enthusiasms might be hidden by the comfort of routine, what new beats might the team move to if you suggested you listen to something new for a change, or try a different approach. We all like to think we’re moving and shaking with the best of them but I reckon most of us default to the norm more often than is healthy. As a manager, as a colleague, I think part of my role is to shake that tree and make sure that no one is being left under a shady spot without enough light to help them bloom.

So just like we’re doing at home I’m going to spend some time thinking about the teams I work with, do some checking in with them and make sure people aren’t taking each other for granted or making assumptions about who does what and why. It could be just like starting over..