Monday, 20 August 2012

Borrowed Books: Reading Previous Readers

A lot of the books I read come from the public library. It seems to me that different readers have different levels of feelings of possession concerning library books. Some readers are quite aware that the books are not theirs and treat them with extreme care, never writing in them, dog-earing them, or putting a pencil marker in them to hold their place. Others feel that for those two weeks that book belongs to them. They write in it, dog-ear it, inadvertently crack the spine, carry it open in their backpack, rubber band it open, cut out interesting photos, highlight it, underline whole paragraphs, cut out sections, and use it as scrap paper in their travels. 

It occurred to me recently that it might be worth looking more closely at what traces left by previous readers on these books might do to the reading experience of subsequent readers. I would hypothesize that readers of fiction in particular would experience an altered cognitive and emotional connection with the imaginary world depicted in the presence of such traces. Indeed, as creatures hyper-attentive to social presence, intentions, and perspectives, people would likely process such traces as intentional, though not directed to a particular individual in this context. Such traces, no matter how small, I propose, should influence reader engagement in fiction. Here are some questions that might be interesting to look into:

  • Sometimes the anonymous previous reader will make some involved notes early in the text, but then completely disappear from view. But once the reader is aware of that earlier reader, wouldn’t she or he be expecting to see later traces from that reader? If so, what does that expectation do for the current reader? Similarly, wouldn’t there be a bit of a shock if you’ve come near the end of a novel and just then appear notes or markings made by a previous reader?  Of course, readers of borrowed books are aware that others have read the books they are reading, but what is it like to suddenly become aware of the markings of some particular, though still anonymous, reader after you’ve felt yourself to be alone with the characters for all that time? Would either circumstance substantially influence cognitive and emotional engagement with the story and characters?
  • Some readers like to make notes in the margins. How might these notes to the previous reader from himself or herself influence the reading experience of the present reader? Would they just provide informational content or would they trigger imagined interpersonal dynamics between that earlier reader and the present one? Might the present reader feel herself to be threatened by a perceived greater knowledge base of the previous reader, or perhaps superior to him or her on the same grounds? Might the current reader have feelings, thoughts, or memories about the ideas inscribed there? To what extent would such interpersonal attention to the previous reader enhance or diminish the fiction reading experience?
  • A more basic question: is there any relationship between the extent of the marginalia and its influence on the reader? Could a simple “X” or “NB” in the margin be more influential than more involved notes? Perhaps the greater mystery of the characteristics of the previous reader is more engaging the less information inscribed there.
  • Of course, previous readers need not be anonymous. One could ask any of these questions in the context of a known previous reader as well. And reading one’s own earlier notes to novels and short stories can be quite an interesting experience. Does such reading contribute in any way to the reader’s reflection on the changing course of his or her emotional responses, changing opinions, and memories evoked by the text? Or do readers read them without considering their earlier selves in any engaged or meaningful way?
There is no doubt a number of reasons why scored books sell for much, much less than unscored books. Might the answers to some of the questions above partially account for readers’ strong preference not to be placed in the imagined presence of other previous readers? It seems to me that these questions and others in the same line would be very much worth pursuing.

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