The subject of this book is marginalia – what readers write in the margin and how readers underline and annotate books. Sherman describes a big historical shift. We tend to see writing in books as an act of defacement. For example, if you return your library copy of Sherman’s book with passages that have been highlighted you will receive a hefty fine. But readers in the Renaissance thought that if you didn’t leave notes in the margin of a book then you were being lazy and passive, because you weren’t doing the job of engaging with the text and answering back to it.
Sherman showed that until two or three hundred years ago, children were taught how to write in books. There were very conventional systems of how you were supposed to take notes in the margins. At the same time, until wood pulp was used in paper making in the 19th century, paper was a very expensive commodity, and because people didn’t have scrap paper lying about, books became a useful source of raw material. So you find books with shopping lists written in the front, or spaces where people practised their handwriting.
More evidence that the Gordian knots of moral conflict, rather than being unraveled, are simply severed by the sword of technology. New knots reappear in new circumstances, though. For instance, now that there are convenient alternatives to defacing one’s reading material, what is to be done with those who persist in their deviance? Are they to be offered therapy, the hemlock cup, or lifetime banishment to the land of audiobooks?