The Death of the Annotator

Maybe it’s only because I’m still feeling the effects of Halloween (I feel deathly, and I’ve got a ghostly pallor to my skin that just won’t rub off) that I’m bringing this up, but this week saw the depressing confirmation of a literary death. Perhaps it’s due to the rise of the ebook, and the demise of public libraries, but book annotations are dying out. Maybe this doesn’t seem quite a profound a literary death as Barthes ‘death of the author’, but hear me out. We should take a moment to celebrate margin minds, o-fillers, and cursive intellects.

It’s year 10, and you’ve just been handed a battered copy of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. You flick through the dog-eared novel and, joy of joys! Someone smart has written all the notes you could possibly need to write your coursework. Hooray, this means you get to spend more time drinking in the park. There’s also a fun flick book of stick-men shooting each other drawn in the bottom right corner, which you add to throughout the term, and keeps you entertained all class.

You open a library book to find out that someone has used a pink highlighter. You’re beyond angry, particularly at the use of such an obnoxious colour and the imprudent sections this ‘annotator’ has chosen to highlight. You’re so angry that you forget all about the argument you had with your flatmate about never washing up and decide to clean the kitchen to calm down.

You’re in a second hand bookstore, looking at the poetry section. You open a copy of Keats’ letters to Fanny Brawne and discover someone (with beautiful cursive handwriting, obviously) has annotated the tome with emotional outpourings – it’s Romantic poetry in itself! You tell yourself, and all you lit-student friends that this was Keats’ own original copy. The guy with harry potter glasses who sits behind you in lectures in particularly impressed and you go for flat whites in Brew Lab.

Inspired by the O-FIller, Alastair Reid

One noon in the library, I watched a man–
imagine!-filling in O’s, a little, rumpled
nobody of a man, who licked his stub of pencil
and leaned over every O with a loving care,
shading it neatly, exactly to its edges,
until the open pages
were pocked and dotted with solid O’s, like villages
and capitals on a map. And yet, so peppered,
somehow the book looked lived in and complete.

That whole afternoon, as the light outside softened,
and the library groaned woodly,
he worked and worked, his o-so-patient shading
descending like an eyelid over each open O
for page after page. Not once did he miss one,
or hover even a moment over an a,
or an e or a p or a g. Only the O’s–
oodles of O’s, O’s multitudinous, O’s manifold,
O’s italic and roman.
and what light on his crumpled face when he discovered–
as I supposed–odd woords, like zoo and ooze,
polo, oolong and odontology!

Think now, in that limitless library,
all round the steep-shelved walls, bulging in their bindings,
books stood, waiting. Heaven knows how many
he had so far filled, but no matter, there still were
uncountable volumes of O-laden prose, and odes
with inflated capital O’s (in the manner of Shelley),
O-bearing Bibles and biographies,
even whole sections devoted to O alone,
all his for the filling. Glory, glory, glory!
How lovely and open and endless the world must have seemed to him,
how utterly clear-cut! Think of it. A pencil
was all he needed. Life was one wide O.

Anyway, why in the end should O’s not be closed
as eyes are? I envied him. After all,
sitting across from him, had I accomplished
anything as firm as he had, or as fruitful?
What could I show? a handful of scrawled lines,
and afternoon yawned and wondered away,
and a growing realization that in time
even my scribbled words would come
under his grubby thumb, and the blinds be drawn
on all my O’s. And only his throught for comfort–
that when he comes to this poem, a proper joy
may amaze his wizened face, and, O, a pure pleasure
make his meticulous pencil quiver.


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