Not Your Grandfather’s Grandfather’s Grandfather’s Grandfather’s Marginal Notes

April 22, 2010

Not for the first time, I’m led to think how much medieval scholars would have loved the World Wide Web, and how many of its best tendencies are continuations of medieval practices that have fallen into abeyance since. (C.S. Lewis once said that the Middle Ages would have adored the modern alphabetized file box filled with index cards. Remember index cards?) Here’s a snippet from a new post that has attracted considerable comment:

In the longer run I expect “annotated” books will be available for full public review, th[r]ough Kindle-like technologies. You’ll be reading Rousseau’s Social Contract and be able to call up the five most popular sets of annotations, the three most popular condensations, J.K. Rowling’s nomination for “favorite page,” a YouTube of Harold Bloom gushing about it, and so on.

This, like so many other new opportunities, represents a democratization of a medieval practice that has become less practical in an age of mass-published books but grows ever more practical with digital distribution and the growing viability of niche markets. I have seen manuscripts of Aristotle with Aquinas’s commentary on the text in the surrounding margins in smaller script, with a further surround of margins full of subsequent commentary in even smaller writing (and sometimes different color). These once provided extremely important study texts (and often served lecturers for the text of their lectures; that may have been their primary purpose, in fact). Now, of course, they are vital to scholars of the history of ideas. Tomorrow we have the chance to continue this sort of practice on a much larger scale, with far wider accessibility. And we need not limit such layered commentary to written texts. The same kind of commentary on commentary on commentary can be used for, e.g., art criticism or musical analysis.

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