Take Note

An exploration of note-taking in Harvard University Collections

Writers Reading, Readers Writing

Leah Price

How does reading gets turned into writing, itself designed (at least in theory) to be read later on? Different media imply different future uses: binding makes lab notebooks tamper-proof, while index cards allow and even invite reshuffling. Time horizons vary: student notes are often designed to be discarded after the exam (the same three-month cycle on which their printed textbooks are resold), while scholars have a lifetime to recoup their investments. According to Herbert Maxwell in 1893, "Unless the recollection of what is read is ensured by notes, reading …. serves to spend our limited capital in time without enriching the ever-diminishing store of future.” How can a time-bound experience such as reading be translated into a tangible object?

Notes fix fleeting processes (listening to a lecture, reading a book, observing a chemical reaction). Travel journals like William James’s in Brazil create a memento of a place that the traveler is about to leave behind. Notes can also record a reader’s journey from Page 1 to The End, whether in the form of a commonplace-book that recombines quotations from multiple printed books in alphabetical order or in the form of scribbled words and symbols in the margins of the book itself.

Today, Amazon’s website lets anyone see which passages of which books have been most often highlighted by Kindle users. The digital age didn’t invent the urge to read over someone else’s shoulder, however. In the margins of Rollo May’s Man's Search for Himself, we find two dueling handwritings . Although “That’s me!” has a territorial feel, "I'd really like to meet the person who did all these underlinings” replaces a dialogue between author and reader by a three-way conversation.

Even the most articulate, copious marginal notes don’t always reflect reading. Until the advent of untaxed woodpulp paper in the second half of the nineteenth century, printed books were valued large part for the blank writing surfaces they offered. With no scrap paper lying around, books formed the most convenient place to practice one’s signature (particularly common in children’s books), to scribble a shopping list, or to jot down handwritten notes completely unrelated to the book’s printed content, like these Hebrew medical recipes in the endpapers of an Italian compendium. Printed books could also become repositories for handwritten information about their owners. Family bibles were the obvious place to record births and deaths, but Benjamin Waterhouse used his, more daringly, to record the dates of children’s and servants’ smallpox vaccinations -- the first in North America. Only as paper cheapened did the margins and flyleaves of printed books give way to paper mass-produced to be written on, culminating in pre-ruled and hole-punched paper like that on which one 19th-century medical student took class notes. Yet students continued to take notes in (as well as on) textbooks, as the yellow highlighter striating library copies attest even today.