Historians have long emphasized the importance of reading and writing practises in building individual and collective identities. The first signs of self expression are found in notes regarding ownership. Taking up a quill, even clumsily, to state who the book belongs to already marks the creation of a "self".
Beyond appropriating a book, repeated "signs of self", such as signatures and dates, further affirmed the subject’s identity, even if repeated signatures may also have been a writing exercise, a way of entertaining oneself or a bookmark.
Georges Berkeley added no less than sixty signatures in ink or pencil to his Gradus ad Parnassum. They were written either completely or partially (GBerkeley, Geo Berkeley), in the form of initials (GB, GB), and as a writing game (in Greek, with his left hand or in a column).
Notes in margins do not immediately provide unfiltered insight into the personal life
of the reader. While interacting with a text can help readers better understand themselves,
any notes are written with an awareness of the unspoken audience, the future reader.
This triad of the author/reader-writer/future reader is ever more present in scholarly works,
in which the reader can clearly present themselves as a rival to the author, directing their
arguments to the future reader whom they are trying to convince.
More so than books that are full of notes, texts that have only a rare note or two are the ones that really give food for thought. "And well done", notes the reader of Bousset's Discourse on Universal History, about the life of the Portuguese king Don Pedro, who banned lawyers from his kingdom. This is the only note in the book and seems to be the reader's gut reaction when the text discusses a sensitive point. It is clear that in this case, the act of reading the text combined with personal experiences had enough of an effect to make the reader take up the quill, thus demonstrating "the power of writing" on the life of readers.
"And well done", notes the reader of Bousset's Suite de l’histoire universelle opposite the passage about Don Pedro of Portugal's life, who banned lawyers from his kingdom. It is the only annotation written in the book.
Isaac-Louis Le Maistre du Sacy, Le Pseautier traduit en françois avec des nottes courtes tirées de S. Augustin, Paris : chez Helie Josset, 1674
To go further
H. J. Jackson, Marginalia : Readers writing in Books, New Haven, 2001.
D. Jacquart, C. Burnett (éd.), Scientia in margine : études sur les Marginalia dans les manuscrits scientifiques du Moyen Age à la Renaissance, Genève, 2005.
Le livre annoté, Revue de la Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2, juin 1999.
W. H. Sherman, Used Books. Marking Readers in Renaissance England, Philadelphie, 2008.
J. Andersen, E. Sauer (éd.), Books and Readers in Early Modern England. Material Studies, Philadelphia, 2002, p. 42-79.
R. E. Stoddard, Marks in Books, illustrated and explained, Cambridge, 1985.