Seizing the White Perimeter

In the chapter “Reading,” Thoreau writes, “…we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have.” Obviously the Digital Thoreau project is accomplishing this by having readers think more deeply about the meaning of Walden and start a conversation about it, and that’s a great tool. It seems particularly appropriate for a text like Walden, which we think of as more “scholarly” than something along the lines of, say, The Twilight Saga. It seeks to call you to some kind of action, rather than simply existing for its entertainment value. It’s meant to be read, meditated on, and thoroughly processed. All of this made me wonder, however, if someone could read our digital version of Walden simply to experience it without any outside influences.

Annotations are distracting and a lot of times I hate them. There, I said it. Before you skip the rest of this and tear me apart in the comments, let me just say that another part of me thinks that annotations are great tools for understanding a text. I really appreciate them the second time through when I’m ready for that information. I’ll get to that later on.

The first time I read a book, I tend to go about it in a somewhat childlike way. I’m curious, but I just want to get to the meat of the story and don’t want anybody stopping to explain what certain things mean; I can usually get past that and look them up later. Annotations disrupt my feeling that reading a book is an intimate experience between the author and myself. It’s also sometimes challenging to figure out my own opinion with everything else in the way.

The first digital book I read was The Great Gatsby on my iPad. It wasn’t a horrible experience, but I can say that the one thing I hated was seeing “3,487 people have highlighted this” next to certain sentences. This is embarrassing to admit, but I found it downright upsetting at times. Why did all those people highlight that? What’s so important there? Am I supposed to find something deeper in that sentence? ‘Cause I’m not finding anything, and I’m supposedly an English major, so obviously there’s something wrong with me. I just wanted to spend some quality time with F. Scott Fitzgerald, but 3,487 people had to come in and ruin it with their highlighting by making me doubt my own reading abilities. How could I possibly engage with the text myself when all those other readers were butting their noses in and interrupting every few pages?

Even though I didn’t always find myself moved by the things other people highlighted, I had highlighting and comments of my own stuck in there too. Andrew D. Scrimgeour writes that “The jottings we make in the books we own may well be among the highest tributes we pay to authors. They are signs of respect, signs of engagement.” It wasn’t that I wasn’t engaging with the text, I just wasn’t quite ready to engage with others yet. Scrimgeour also suggests that our marginalia reveal a lot about how we personally are engaging with texts. What better way to develop our own thoughts regarding a text? I think that sometimes we have to figure it out for ourselves first, uninhibited by others.

I haven’t had a chance to look at all the Walden annotations, but I’d guess that most of us are approaching it from an analytical perspective rather than a “Wow, I just really like this sentence that Thoreau wrote so I’m gonna mark it” angle, and for the purposes of this class, that’s good. It’s easy as English majors to forget to read for enjoyment, though. We can’t forget to entertain our less academic-sounding thoughts, such as thinking Emily Dickinson is a ninny, along with more serious reflection. The background behind how an author like Thoreau wrote (as seen in the Fluid Text edition) is obviously very important, but since it’s a text with which we’re meant to engage as readers and scholars, I’m of the opinion that our personal reactions are just as valid.

All in all, while it may be intimidating to put our thoughts out there on the digital text because we worry that what we think is wrong, if the text prompts us to think something, we’re probably not alone. The text is supposed to make us think, and those organic responses are sometimes the most interesting, in my opinion. As for getting distracted by other people’s annotations, well, there’s always an unmarked print copy available somewhere if we need it. When we’re ready to engage with others, though, a network like Digital Thoreau can’t be ignored.

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