The highlighter-happy, anonymous annotator

This morning my copy of The Footnote: A Curious History by Anthony Grafton fell through my letterbox.


It's secondhand, as are all of my books. I buy ones marked as ‘good’ or ‘very good’, sometimes ‘ex library copy’; there’s the odd pencil mark at worst, but usually there’s just a scruffy cover saving me a few quid.

This one, however, was different.


Every single page is like this - slathered with brightly coloured highlighter, either pink or yellow (but with no colour-coding); large, sprawling handwriting filling the margins. ‘Good’, my arse.

My first reaction was anger.

I couldn’t now read in the way I usually do: pencil in hand, strategic underlining and circling, symbols and key words neatly jotted in the margins, adding a sticky note here and there. This person has butted into my space.

Then I stopped and thought about it.

As I flick through the pages, the marginalia starts to form a voice of its own. I don’t know who this person is, but I can see how they think. I can see what they thought was important, or what conclusions and connections they drew.

Yet I don’t know who they are. They were likely an undergraduate student and - risking stereotyping on handwriting - possibly female, but that’s just speculation. All I do know is what they’ve chosen to write in this book. (And that they’re the sort of person who does so in highlighter and biro.)

It reminds me of marginalia in manuscripts, where the annotator and copyist can often be of more interest than the author - in part due to their anonymity. The anonymous person has an air of mystery that always catches the attention.

It starts to form a three-way dialogue: the author, the anonymous annotator, and myself. As I’m reading, I’m not just engaging with the thoughts of Anthony Grafton, but also of this reader before me. It's like a book club.

Whilst I’m still annoyed they’ve disrupted my reading routine, I'm not angry like I was when I first opened it.

I do wish they hadn't used so much highlighter, though.

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