Traces of Reading

My work locating the marginalia in the volumes of the John Stuart Mill Library here at Somerville started at the end of June. Just over 10 weeks and about 320 volumes later, and my spreadsheet runs to over 12,000 entries – that’s over 12,000 asterisks, sidelines, underlines, symbols, full sentences, critical comments, incredulous question marks and indignant exclamation points. As Albert has explained, the sheer number and variety of marks show the different ways in which James and John Stuart Mill used these volumes: as textbooks to be mined for material for parliamentary speeches (or later, for Oxford undergraduates’ essays); as teaching materials to be memorised; or as works by contemporaries to be rigorously critiqued.

Rather ironically, given that my job is to find written marks, one of the things that has repeatedly struck me over the course of this project is that marginal annotations are just one of a variety of traces left in these volumes by readers. Evidence of reading comes in many forms: alongside deliberate, handwritten marks are the accidental, unintentional, physical ones too. For example, countless ink blots and idle pencil marks pepper the pages of many of these volumes. We can’t tell who they were made by, and can only make a rough guess as to when, but their very presence – in margins, through lines of text and across otherwise pristine, blank flyleaves – is proof of reading. They tell us that someone saw the page, paused at it or flicked past it, holding a pen or pencil a fraction too close to the paper.

Then there are the ways readers have used the physical features of the books themselves. I’ve found pages marked in many different ways, from corners neatly – and not so neatly – folded over, to ribbon markers placed – or simply left? – between specific pages. In the absence of ribbon, other items have been used as improvised bookmarks. My favourites include a handwritten note on how to run a local society election (appropriately tucked into The Ballot Act, by W. A. Holdsworth (1880)); several early twentieth-century library loan slips; and a note in what looks like a shaky, nineteenth-century hand, complaining about a leaky water closet.

This loan slip and note about a leaking water closet are just two examples of the array of items used as bookmarks.
This loan slip and note about a leaking water closet are just two examples of the array of items used as bookmarks.

The physical state of the books gives some clues too. Now-flimsy binding and evidence of rebinding could be as much an indicator of use, as of age. More unusual is the faint, reverse imprint of handwriting and printed text from other sources, that is evident on the pages of several volumes.

Imprint of handwriting on page.

Imprint of text
Faint imprints like these, left on the page by other printed texts and handwritten notes, repeatedly occur in the volumes in Mill’s library.

What might we deduce from this about Mill’s reading habits? It suggests open books being stacked chaotically, or essays and notes tucked between the relevant pages of a well-used text. It suggests cross-referencing and active, interactive use. These volumes were opened, even if they weren’t annotated.

Even more intriguingly, some of the physical properties of these books also point to a lack of use. A surprising proportion of the volumes in the library have unopened, or uncut pages. It is the product of the way they were made: multiple pages of text were printed onto one large sheet of paper, which was folded up, bound together with others, and then the folds cut, in order to separate individual pages. In several of these volumes, however, the pages are still attached on their outer and top sides which means that they can’t be opened, and the text within them can’t be read.

Uncut Pages
Instances of unopened pages that appear in the books in this collection most often resemble the example depicted here, where the pages remain uncut along their top side.

The presence of uncut pages is a pretty convincing indication of which volumes – and how much of them – Mill didn’t read, and in some cases we can hazard a guess as to why. The large quantity of uncut pages in a multi-volume edition of Jeremy Bentham’s works, for example, is unsurprising given that it was reputedly very poorly edited and full of inaccuracies. In addition, there is a strong correlation between the amount of flattery or admiration for John Stuart Mill that appeared in a book’s title page, preface or introduction, and the number of its pages that Mill himself left uncut. It is as if he was unimpressed – or at least left unmoved – by the admiration of contemporary writers.

These non-written, more physical, accidental indicators of reading – and non-reading – do not strictly fall within the remit of this project. However, the great advantage of a digitisation project like this one, which incorporates photos of the physical appearance of these books down to the very page, is that these aspects will be captured and available for the future researcher to examine. A roughly-cut page, a folded corner, an ink splatter across lines of text; all give a richer sense of the ways in which these volumes were used, and provide vital context to the 12,000 marks we have found so far.

– Hazel Tubman, Research Assistant, Somerville College, Oxford

Lighting the TORCH for Mill at Oxford

Sandwiched between presentations on Thomas Carlyle’s connections to Robert Owen and Orestes Brownson, respectively, Albert’s “Influence as Palimpsest: Carlyle, Mill, Sterling” met with a warm reception at “The Oak and Acorns: Recovering the Hidden Carlyle,” hosted at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.  Speaking just steps outside the north gate of Somerville College, Albert placed the marginalia in Mill’s personal copies of John Sterling’s Essays and Tales (1848) and Carlyle’s Life of John Sterling (1851) in the context of Mill’s complex relationship with both men and reviewers’ reactions to both of their books, grounding his presentation in first-ever photos from the Mill Collection.

Mill's annotated copies of Sterling and Carlyle's Life of Sterling
Mill’s annotated copies of Sterling and Carlyle’s Life of Sterling

Mill and Sterling first encountered one another in 1828 at the London Debating Society, whereas Mill first met Carlyle during the latter’s second visit to London in 1831.  Mill subsequently introduced his two friends to one another in his London office in 1835, and then elicited contributions from both men to appear alongside his own in the London and Westminster Review.  This period of mutual intimacy and influence lasted through the second half of the 1830s, resulting in, among other things, “Carlyle’s Works,” commissioned from Sterling by Mill for the October 1839 issue of the LWR.

Although this essay was generally recognized as Sterling’s best work by reviewers of the posthumous Essays and Tales, most found the rest of the book largely underwhelming.  In this they were not alone, as Mill’s private annotations include judgments like “nonsense; of the ‘enlightened self interest’ sort,” “Clear because Shallow,” and, most relevant for a conference on Carlyle, “absurd copy of Carlyle’s manner.”

Mill's Annotations on Sterling
Mill’s Annotations on Sterling

Mill also resisted the pious apologetics in the biographical memoir added to Essays and Tales by Charles Julius Hare, archdeacon in the Church of England and one of Sterling’s two literary executors.

The other of these two executors, Thomas Carlyle, was so dissatisfied with Hare’s efforts, that he published his Life of John Sterling three years later.  Reviewers overwhelmingly recognized the superiority of Carlyle’s efforts, and even Mill could find little fault, confining himself mainly to supplying missing and correcting erroneous biographical details in the margins.

Mill's Annotations on Carlyle's Life of Sterling
Mill’s Annotations on Carlyle’s Life of Sterling

Judging from the absence of summative judgments in the front or back pages, Mill appears to have read through the Life once and set it aside without further thought.  The relative paucity of his engagement might, itself, be a sign of the state of his deteriorated friendship with Carlyle, as much as evidence for the satisfactions of his newly married life.  Either way, Mill’s marginal relations with his ex-friends, the one deceased and the other dyspeptic, helped to provoke an especially robust Q&A session and subsequent conversation, all eminently sensible and enlightened, even when partaking of self-interest.

– Albert D. Pionke, Project Director

A Pleasant Smell of Leather Bindings and Marginal Results

Another week of research at Oxford has yielded photos of, in round numbers, 3300 more examples of marginalia on 1500 more pages in 31 more individual volumes. Work this time around was greatly abetted by the ongoing work of Hazel Tubman, Somerville’s Delmas Foundation-funded research assistant.

Albert Pionke and Hazel Tubman working with Mill's annotated texts in Somerville College
Albert Pionke and Hazel Tubman working with Mill’s annotated texts in Somerville College

Hazel has begun the first serious effort to identify, collate, and enter into metadata spreadsheets suitable for use with the under-development Mill Marginalia database every single example of marginalia in the John Stuart Mill Collection. We’re all hopeful that Hazel will see her way to writing about her experience in one or more future postings on this site.

In the meantime, the marginalia from Mill’s copy of the 14-volume Works of Francis Bacon, to cite a singular example, looks promising on at least three fronts.

Mill's Annotated Works of Francis Bacon
Mill’s Annotated Works of Francis Bacon

First, it reveals Mill annotating in a new way. Rather than reading as a friend anxious to safeguard the reputation of someone whom he knew personally, as he does in Thomas Carlyle’s Life of John Sterling (about which more in a future post); or reading as a critic quick to point out, if only to himself, the argumentative shortcomings of another writer, as he does in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays (for which see Frank Prochaska’s 2014 article in History Today); Mill evidently turned to Bacon’s Works as a researcher eager to find passages suitable for his own future reference. The result was hundreds of marginal scores, double scores, “NB”s, and “HS”s (presumably shorthand for “Holy Scripture,” since it appears beside biblical references). Mill occupies the margins of Bacon’s Works both literally and figurative, noting his predecessor’s experience and opinions without evaluating them as he does in other, more recent authors’ works.

Mill annotates Bacon's works
Mill annotates Bacon’s works

Second, these brief but numerous marks and annotations begin to appear with startling frequency in the tenth volume, which contains a portion of Bacon’s Life and Letters focused in particular on the inner workings of England’s government. This volume was published in 1868, also the final year of Mill’s service in Parliament, and the coincidence of subject matter and date suggests that Mill may have been seeking passages to use in his own late parliamentary speeches. A search for marked and annotated passages from Bacon in the facsimile online edition of Mill’s Collected Works may yield some surprising and previously unknown connections in the future.

Third, Mill’s marginalia in Bacon’s Works suggests the need for, at the least, revision to and expansion of the listing for Bacon in the Bibliographic Index of Persons and Works Cited of Mill’s Collected Works. In Volume XI: Essays on Philosophy and the Classics, for instance, the editors acknowledge the presence of Bacon’s Works in Somerville’s John Stuart Mill Collection, but go on to assert that Mill’s references to Bacon all antedate the edition. However, for all publications after 1857, the year that the first volume of the Bacon appeared, Mill may in fact be quoting from his own edition and may be doing so with much greater breadth and frequency than is presently identified in the Index.

It almost goes without saying, although it should be said, that Somerville was, once again, an incredibly welcoming and comfortable place in which to do research. If only all archives were as pleasant and productive to visit.

– Albert D. Pionke, Project Director

An Advisory Board Advisory

A warm welcome to our inaugural advisory board members:

  • Anna Gibson is Assistant Professor of English at Duquesne University and Principal Investigator for the Dickens Working Notes Project.
  • Meredith Martin is Associate Professor of English at Princeton University, author of The Rise and Fall of Meter, Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930, Principal Investigator for the Princeton Prosody Archive, and Faculty Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton.
  • Georgios Varouxakis is Professor of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London, author of Liberty Abroad: J. S. Mill on International Relations, Mill on Nationality, and Victorian Political Thought on France and the French, and Co-Director of the QMUL Centre for the Study of the History of Political Thought.
  • Phyllis Weliver is Associate Professor of English at Saint Louis University, author of The Musical Crowd in English Fiction, 1840-1910: Class, Culture and Nation and Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860-1900: Representations of Music, Science and Gender in the Leisured Home, and Principal Investigator for Sounding Tennyson.
  • Alex Zakaras is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont, author of Individuality and Mass Democracy: Mill, Emerson, and the Burdens of Citizenship, and co-editor of J. S. Mill’s Political Thought: A Bicentennial Retrospective.

In addition to providing general advice about all things Mill- and DH-related, they will be beta-testing our database and web search interface prototypes (once we have them) and serving as a peer review board of all prospective content for our final website (including both general introductory materials and critical introductions to the marginalia found in selected books).

– Albert D. Pionke, Project Director

Post-Spreadsheet Spreadsheets

After I filled the spreadsheets, I went back through the 1,906 photos. To ensure quality, Dr. Pionke had taken two photos of each marked page, and occasionally a zoomed-in picture of text blocks. This was helpful while working through the marginalia, but users of the final project wouldn’t really need the duplicates. So my next task was going through the photo sets and paring them down as well as filing them for the database.

I compared each set of duplicates and chose the better photo, rotated it to the appropriate alignment, and renamed the file based on our agreed-upon naming convention (Author Title Volume.Page.OtherInfo). The zoomed-in files we kept, in case users had trouble reading text in the full-page photos.

I then added two columns to the spreadsheet to include these file names—one for full-page photos and another for zoomed-in pages. That second column also came in handy for notes in which Mill referenced other pages; the referenced pages went into the same column as the zoomed-in photos.

Post Spreadsheet Spreadsheets

The inclusion of file names directly in the spreadsheet will make it easier for Tyler (our web design expert) to tie the photos to the information in the final website. I also added rows for unmarked title pages, which we had decided to include in the database.

Moving forward, I won’t be doing much with the project. The next step for this section of the project involves choosing the best example of each type of marginalia for a potential reference section of the site, which has already begun.

The process was definitely satisfying in a lot of ways. I started with 1,906 photos and ended with 7 comprehensive sheets of marginalia. I can’t wait to see the future of the project, and I’m very excited about this information being available to the public on a large scale. I’m very glad I got the opportunity to work with this team and learn more about the inner workings of J.S. Mill!

– Carissa Schreiber, former Research Assistant to Professor Albert Pionke at the University of Alabama.