A Marginal Error

I recently had the great pleasure of visiting Skoob, the massive second-hand bookstore in London that not even Oxford’s traditional charity bookshops can compete with. After two hours of feverishly scouring the shelves for the best bargains, I triumphantly presented my winnings – five pounds for ten tattered, ancient, dust-cloth books. These are the kind of books that you should definitely look for in second-hand bookstores; the older and the messier the better. Why? Because scrawled into the cramped spaces of the margin are some of the most hilarious/insightful reader annotations I have ever read. And they certainly allowing you to gauge the personality of the book’s previous owners.

At home, turning the pages of a well-thumbed copy of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, I came across two aggressively opinionated readers, fighting it out anonymously in the snatched corners of the pages. After one paragraph, Reader A had scribbled their compliments to Greene, a polite “very good, Graham”, with their praise reaching fever-pitch 100 pages later as they shouted “Yes, of course YES!”
However the book’s next owner, grumpy Reader B, seems to have been less happy with Greene’s work, and even less happier with Reader A’s obsequious congratulations. Taking a pen to hand, Reader B replied to each annotation – “No, you’re wrong” and “I don’t think so”, and after Reader A’s jubilant “YES”, they could only muster a sardonic “please.” Reader B even had issues with the grammatical choices of the editor, correcting full-stops and missing apostrophes whenever they cropped up. What explains this dialogue between two readers (and a writer), all engaged in an argument they don’t really know they’re having? Physically changing the text with their emotional outpourings, suddenly Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock’ is not really the same book.

Lucky to attend an Oxford college that owns an original copy of Shakespeare’s 1623 folio (anybody can see it – just email the librarian), I was reminded of the time I first saw it and noted the dramatic changes made by the actors and editors to Shakespeare’s actual words. Annoyed with his notoriously shaky grammar, or displeased with a scene, they hacked away, effectively rewriting Shakespeare. Hamlet’s famous last words, “the rest is silence”, have the melodramatic “O, o, o, o” affixed to them in the folio – a tragic flourish of woe added in by the actor Richard Burbage, who seems to have been unhappy with the understated death originally ascribed to Hamlet. The actors and editors felt they owned the texts and had no reservations about remodelling it to suit themselves. And I’m pretty sure that self-righteous Reader B would jump at the chance to rework the (to him) quite evident mistakes in Brighton Rock.

The idea that all readers like to secretly assume an editorial role enough to mark their texts with their own thoughts (a secret ironically made less private when handed over to a very public bookstore) is not, I think, just crudely ‘defacing’ a work. It is a sign that a book doesn’t just stop with the author’s final words, but is always a collaborative process; after two weeks of work experience learning how to proofread, I find it amazing that editors manage to resist the temptation to scrawl their opinions absolutely everywhere over a work. Reader A and Reader B reveal – to end on a note of perfect sycophancy – the immense importance of the publishing team!

Alice Thompson, currently doing work experience at Allison & Busby

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One thought on “A Marginal Error”

  1. This reminds me a little of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell who took books out of the library and wrote pointed (etc) comments in them. Eventually they were caught and fined. And the rest was history. I suppose today these annotations would be sold for millions of pounds? Well, thousands.

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