WORDS INSIDE: Books, Marginalia and Technology

Shawn Sobers's picture

Artist Statement

My current photography series is interested in marginalia – notes in the margins of books – and the other markings they carry that weren’t there when new.  Many see writing in books as a kind of sacrilege, but those who do it (including me), say they do it for their love of books, not from their disrespect.  Writers as respected as Virginia Woolf, Alexander Pope, Charles Darwin, Samuel Johnson, William Blake, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and many others carried out marginalia in books they owned.  Evidence of having a conversation with the books they engaged with, physical remnants of their thought processes in process.

Digital platforms such as the Kindle allow notes to be made in texts, seemingly legitimizing marginalia practice which has been frowned upon in physical book formats.  With the advance of digital technology as it is, with 3-dimensional books being processed into E-books and experienced through devices such as the Kindle and iPad, we easily forget that the physical book as we have known it for centuries, is also a form of technology (known as a Codex format of binding paper together).  Before the codex, a popular technology for written language was the papyrus scroll, and before that texts were carved into stone, bark, and other materials able to hold markings.  Digital devices are another technology in that literary delivery lineage, not the first.  If history is our guide then digital platforms will supersede and eradicate the codex format, as scrolls and tablets of stone are no longer formats of choice, not even by underground niche movements.  However this revolution of book technology is significantly different, as for the first time it will be a transition from physical to virtual, rather than from one form of physical substance to another.

Over the coming weeks/months, I’ll be presenting photographs and writing on the subject, ranging from the challenge of cultural inheritance in the digital age, through to analyzing notes in books more specifically, reflecting on marginalia as; autobiography, meta-reference, memory, sign-post, deconstruction, pedagogy, toolkit, review, fixed book-mark, affirmation, and as a hint.

Other observations on marginalia and related markings will be made, and different approaches to the photography explored.

Here I present images exploring a combination of marginalia, dedications and library markings – interested in the line between stigmatized and non-stigmatized forms of writing in books.

Dr Shawn Sobers – January 2012


Civil Society

Notes by the photographer
Reason: Studying for PhD
Published 2008, notes in same year


Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Notes by photographer
Reason: Studying for PhD, logging quotes
Book purchased second hand, already contained some notes (not shown)


Of Mice and Men

Inscription: ‘From Wendy, Christmas 1963′ (unknown)
Published 1963
Book owned by photographer
Found in parents’ house, presumed purchased second-hand


Social Problems: A Modern Approach

Highlighted by unknown person
Published 1967
Book owned by photographer
Purchased second-hand circa 2004


Alice in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass

Inscription – 50p and 3/12
Book owned by photographer
Purchased in second-hand shop for 50p
Published 1963, purchased circa 2001


The Doodle Book: Draw! Colour! Create!

Drawing by Mahalia Sobers, aged circa 3 years old
Reason: Fun


Westward with Columbus

Scribble by unknown child
Published 1906
Owned by photographer
Purchased second-hand for 5p, circa 2002


The Big Questions in Science and Religion

Underlined by Anja Thomson
Reason: Studying for Ordination
Underlined using pencil and ruler
Book owned by note-maker


The Modern Theme

Markings by Newport College Library
Library location: 196.1 GAS
Book owned by photographer
Purchased second-hand circa – 1993 – 1996


Being Anglican

Ticks by Anja Thomson
Reason: Studying for Ordination
Book owned by note-maker


Behind the Dream: The Making Of The Speech That Transformed A Nation

Inscription by the author, Clarence B. Jones, dedicated to the photographer’s children
Published, purchased and inscribed in 2011
Book sale included presentation and Q&A with the author


Universal English Dictionary

Inscription by unknown person
Published 1957
Book owned by photographer
Found in parents’ house
Reason and meaning of inscription: Unknown


Marxism and Form

Notes by Graham Bottrill
Date: tbc
Reason: tbc
Book owned by note-maker


The Aim of Education and Other Essays

Inscription presumed by John Lucas (unknown)
Sixth edition: 1966
Book owned by photographer
Purchase circa 2004 (Book Barn – £1)


The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism

Notes by Graham Bottrill
Retractable pencil and biro
Year: tbc
Reason: tbc
Book owned by note maker


The Relevance of Sociology

Markings by Salford University Library
Last withdrawal: 18 Jan 1991
Book owned by photographer
Purchase and Location – unknown


The New Dragon Book of Verse

Notes by Sharon Townson
Reason: Drama A-Level
Grade achieved: tbc
Book owned by note-maker


This work is being produced through the HUSK staff photography forum, and the Visual Culture Research Group at the University of the west of England.

All photography in this series is the original work of Shawn Sobers – All Rights Reserved.


Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 23 Jan 2012 00:50:44 +0000