I recently looked up Murasaki Shikibu nikki (The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu) on the Kindai Digital Library (Digital Library from the Meiji Era) as part of my research in revising a dissertation chapter for further publication. I found an 1893 printing and was interested in how the diary was being presented to readers at the time – this was one of the first times it was typeset and published on a mass commercial scale. (The diary itself is from the late 10th and early 11th centuries, written by the author of The Tale of Genji.) Because I’m studying the printing of Higuchi Ichiyō’s diary – a modern woman writer who was compared to Murasaki herself – I’m interested in how other women’s diary literature was being talked about and published as a context.
Anyway, I found no preface, footnotes, afterward, or annotations, so I was out of luck on that front. Except that the lack of annotations itself presented a fascinating problem in the case of this book. Instead of annotations along the top of the page with a line dividing them from the text, as was usual for classical texts being printed at this time, what we have is room for annotations that was intentionally left blank. In other words, this printing specifically made room for readers’ own annotations. Check it out:
We often think of digital texts as being uniquely interactive when compared with physical print books, but this 1893 edition shows that that is far from the case. It is a book that specifically invites – no, demands – reader interaction. Reading becomes a two-way activity here, both receiving and contributing, producing and consuming. It is a profoundly personal experience as well, with room for individualized comments and reflections, perhaps, along with jotting down notes to oneself to help understand the text. It is an experience that demands rereading as well – these are notes for further use, written down for future reference and rereading and rethinking. This book asks readers to contribute their own text, and legitimizes those individual interpretations as written upon its pages by providing an official space for them that runs alongside the legitimate text.
This is a remarkably different experience of reading than we might find in, say, a manuscript copy of that same diary from hundreds of years before (as it was originally circulated) or in a printed version with annotations already filled in. (Or even no annotations or room in the margins for them, although that would be extremely rare.) It is an experience that combines readership and authorship, and makes the reader into an editor and author him- or herself in the act of interactive reading.
Yet this book is not entirely unique. It simply presents an extreme case. There was recently an two-day conference on note-taking at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute – entitled, appropriately enough, Take Note – and the focus of this event was on what I would call interactive reading, on readers’ annotations. Readers have been annotating texts – interacting with texts, modifying them and producing their own text in response – since perhaps the written word was invented. Practices may have changed over time and between cultures and languages, but marginalia and annotation have been, and are, alive and well. We might call the typeset, printed text a static thing, unlike mutable digital texts, but in practice, it is easily modified and given new and different meanings through readers’ interactions with pen and pencil.
In fact, I might go so far as to say that digital texts in the form of ebooks are actually less mutable, less interactive, than print books at this point in time. I have a Kindle and while I love reading on it, I still buy any book that I think I might interact with – that I might read slowly and carefully with pen and sticky note sin hand – in a paper version. Annotation may be possible, but it is not comfortable or, for me, practical. It’s a laborious process and can only handle highlighting and plain text, not sketches or diagrams. There is something freeing about the handwritten note or image, something that allows ideas to flow and take shape without restriction. Ebooks do not accommodate this now, although it’s certainly not impossible. It’s implemented badly or not at all.
There is no such restriction on the paper book: it is a good implementation for reading actively and interactively. It is far from static and stable; it is open to readers’ interpretations and analysis. In fact, it is a home for them. As Murasaki Shikibu nikki demonstrates, the page invites our interaction, not simply our passive consumption.