Defacing things with writing

“What I really want is someone rolling around in the text” by Sam Anderson


This one is old, but I discovered it today while trying to find an easy way to annotate things digitally – webpages, documents, everything. Anderson’s meditation on the joy of marginalia is bittersweet for me. I love the idea of writing things in books as I read them, but I have never been able to do it; either I find myself reading with nothing to say (surprising, you might say, for a writer) or I find myself completely stunted by a lurking perfectionism. It might seem neurotic in an absurd way to say that I haven’t written things in books in the past for fear of writing something stupid, but there it is. “Errors, mistakes, even slight… discrepancies,” says Perfectionism with disgust, sliding his glasses further up his crinkled nose, “are not to be tolerated.” And so I put the pencil down.

But, you know, fuck that guy. I’ll mark up the next book I’m reading with wild abandon, like it’s a public bathroom stall and I’m a bored, misguided teen with a sharpie.

The article talks mostly about the annotation of e-books (which has gone into overdrive since it was written), but it occurs to me as I bobble about the internet, that almost everything on it could be considered a text. There are endless words on the internet, but also videos, images and audio, too. All ripe for notes and scribbling.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the time when I felt most engaged with the things that I was studying, which was when I was doing my postgrad diploma in humanities. I was scribbling up a storm, metaphorically speaking, because I was downloading papers and annotating them in Adobe Reader. That was pretty effective, but all the plugins and bookmarklets that I’ve tried for the web (Hypothesis, WorldBrain most recently), feel cramped and constrained, shoved off to the right in side bars. What I want is something like track changes, for a webpage. Let me fuck with the text. Let me add actual foot notes and comments. Let me write, mid sentence ‘I disagree’ or ‘Holy shit, preach’ in strange colours. Most importantly of all, let me export it. Don’t make me remain in those cramped, fenced off boxes on the side of the screen. Let me take it away and make new things with it.

Digital media seem highly constrained compared to pen and paper, whether that paper is a notebook or a novel. Everything is discrete and if you want to start writing over other text, or writing at odd angles, or drawing over text or writing on an image, you either have to start fucking with the settings or use the specific, pre-defined, boxed ways that are ‘allowed’. Where’s the disorder? Where’s the chaos?

There’s a book, called Orality and Literacy, that details the ways that going from an oral society to a literate society changed the ways that human beings could think about things, changed the ways that human consciousness worked. It might be a bit of a stretch to say that going from writing, free form, to such a rigid way of producing texts might have an impact too, but I’m curious. There’s research to suggest that typing notes isn’t as effective as writing them when it comes to memory. What other ways might it be changing us? Is it cramping our creativity?

It probably isn’t, and I don’t want people to get the idea that I’m a Luddite or one of those people who has ‘tech panic’, but I’d be remiss if I said I wasn’t curious. I don’t know, maybe I’m just chafing against the boxes today; I feel like I want to break out, and writing what I think straight on webpages feels like a glorious, grafiti-esque way to do it.

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