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Jason Allen Snart. The Torn Book: UnReading William Blake’s Marginalia. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2006. 213 pp., 22 b&w illus. $48.50/£29.95, hardcover.

SOME of Blake’s most trenchant and pithy comments come to us from the margins of the books he owned: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot,” or “If Morality was Christianity Socrates was The Savior” (E 641, 667). Thanks to the recovery and collection of these marginalia by such editors as Keynes and Erdman, students of Blake may and do quote from them as readily as from Blake’s self-published writings, as I have just done, focusing on their content at the expense of context. In doing so, we follow the example of Frye, Bloom, Thompson, Damon, and other leaders in the field. However, as Jason Snart argues in his new book, to extract these marginal interventions from their material context is to risk not only misreading the statements themselves, but also misinterpreting what books meant for Blake as a reader and printer.

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Snart’s thesis is that “Blake’s experience as a reader both informed and reflected his thinking about what books could do and be” (35). Therefore, the annotations do not express, or emerge out of, a preexisting theory (30). Rather, they embody a process of readerly engagement, which, Snart argues, is “flatten[ed]” or even eclipsed entirely when scholars treat all Blake’s textual productions as equivalent (31): for example, placing an annotation to Reynolds alongside a line from Jerusalem. Snart is interested in the marginalia not as products, but as process. While Snart’s book has some shortcomings and some underdeveloped points, its great value lies in its attention to the marginalia as material interventions in the books of others, leading to questions and hypotheses about scenes of reading, writing, and printing in Blake’s own illuminated poems, notably The Book of Urizen.

Snart is not alone in focusing on marginalia in order to illuminate the practice of reading: H. J. Jackson has published two books in the past six years, Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (2001) and Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia (2005). Snart acknowledges the first, broader study, not as a “source” but as “responding to many of the same developments in scholarship” (12). I mention Jackson’s latter book, however, because it throws into sharper relief the different ways in which she and Snart approach marginalia. While both seem to agree that annotation “synthesizes . . . the functions of reading and writing” (Jackson, Marginalia 90), Jackson maintains the sense of a coherent and preexisting philosophy that is solidified and confirmed by Blake’s reading practices. She cites his account, on a blank page of Reynolds’s Discourses, of his own annotations to Locke and Bacon (now lost), testifying to the consistency of his opinion over time. Blake, she concludes, “used his system of annotation to argue in favor of his own convictions, building up and defending a contrary position” (Romantic Readers 158). Repeatedly Jackson speaks of Blake’s “system” or “method” of annotation.

Snart, on the other hand, characterizes all of Blake’s work as an “anti-system project.” The “UnReading” in his title “looks to avoid the conventional reading of marginalia for content in favor of asserting and maintaining their difficulty” (23). This approach requires that Snart resist the urge to make Blake coherent. Rather, he rewrites Los’s famous line from Jerusalem (E 153) to read “I must not create a system, or be enslaved by another” (127): this appears, without comment, as the epigraph to chapter 4. Thus Snart participates in the post-Derridean and anti-Frygean practice of attending to the textual instabilities of Blake, in the tradition of Donald Ault (one of his dissertation supervisors, and a heavy influence) and Molly Anne Rothenberg. At the same time, his attention to the materiality of the marginalia and the physicality of Blake’s readerly interventions forms a bridge between a more abstracted deconstructionism and the material investigations of Michael Phillips and Joseph Viscomi into Blake’s book production.

Before turning directly to the marginalia, Snart spends two chapters exploring what he calls Blake’s “anti-Newtonianism” and the tension between “fixity” and “fluidity” in his (or indeed any artist’s) work. While Snart acknowledges that Blake’s opposition to “Newton’s sleep” is often oversimplified (45), he himself falls prey to the convenient use of “Newtonian” to refer to a linear system of cause and effect, described in language that transparently reveals an objective reality (36-37). Indeed, the phrase “Newtonian narrative,” which Snart borrows from Ault, risks following in the path of the notorious “Orc cycle” as a critical commonplace. The second chapter, after helpful close readings of several plates from Songs, focuses largely on “The Book of Urizen as “a book about the impossibility of getting outside of the book one is writing” (96). While Paul Mann has already discussed The Book of Urizen as “a book about books” (Mann 49), Snart explores the interpretive challenges posed not only by the book itself but also by the editorial impulse to pin “Urizen” down, to identify pictured figures as “Urizen,” as well as, inevitably, to decide the order in which to read the plates. The end of chapter 2 offers, rather awkwardly, a brief “Preludium” to Snart’s examination of the marginalia themselves. Here, as elsewhere, Snart tends to tell us repeatedly what he is doing, a likely residue of the dissertation that might well have been edited out of the published volume.

Nonetheless, Snart makes a convincing case that Blake’s “composite art,” with its inclusion of competing and even contradictory evidence, poses a challenge to the univocal authority of a “Newtonian” text. The marginalia thus become another means of challenging that Newtonian singularity. By “unfinish[ing]” a “finished” text, “the qualities of completeness (unity), univocality (repression), and closure could be contested if not dismantled outright” (38). This analogy between annotated and illuminated books raises another question, however: did Blake view his marginalia as an artistic production, even a publication?

Like Jackson, Snart cites Lavater’s final aphorism, which invites readers to “interline” and “set . . . mark[s]” as they read and then to show their annotations to others. For both critics, this directive suggests that “Blake did not annotate only as he read a volume for the first time” (Snart 161). Both also note the apparent addresses to a reader in the marginalia, as well as the signing of them as “Will Blake.” Snart further notes the “uncanny” production of an alternative “title page of sorts” in Blake’s annotations to Reynolds’s title page (152). While Blake de-centers the “original” text and often makes it difficult for the reader to ignore his comments, “rarely if ever has Blake defaced the original text to the point that it is unreadable” (150). Without the original, the sense of a contrary statement would be lost.

While Jackson asserts that Blake circulated his annotated books as an “alternative form of publication” (Romantic Readers 169), Snart does not go so far.11. Morton Paley makes a case (266) for at least some of Blake’s annotations being intended for an audience, “fit . . . though few.” Snart is more interested in integrating Blake’s experience as an annotator with his experience as an author and printer, suggesting, for example, that the begin page 131 | back to top “wall of words” V. A. De Luca notes on some pages of Jerusalem (De Luca 218) represents a deliberate defense against the contesting voice of annotation (Snart 142-43). Snart shares with Jackson, however, a fascination with Blake’s use of pen to ink over his penciled notes, which Snart construes as evidence that Blake expected an audience to read them (132-33).

The strongest parts of Snart’s argument are those that stick closely to the marginalia themselves. Even where he briefly introduces topics for further study, as in the closing section, “Areas for Further Research,” he zeroes in on glaring gaps in our understanding of Blake’s annotation. The links to Blake’s own poetry and illuminated books, however, are not always as convincing. For instance, I am not persuaded that Urizen’s “trac[ing] . . . verses” in The Four Zoas is in any way connected to Blake’s tracing over his marginalia in pen (144). Moreover, The Book of Urizen, as I have suggested above, takes up an inordinate amount of space in a relatively brief book about marginalia.

Despite these cavils, Jason Snart is to be commended for so acutely challenging the prevailing mode of reading the marginalia purely for content. Like the Santa Cruz Blake Study Group, whom Snart frequently cites and who first called attention to the distorting effect of typeset editions of Blake, Snart has shown the inadequacy of extracting marginalia from their context. He also calls attention to the alarming deterioration of many of the annotations, as pencil fades and pages crumble. We can only hope that someday some of these annotated pages might become part of the Blake Archive.

Works Cited

De Luca, V. A. “A Wall of Words: The Sublime as Text.” Unnam’d Forms: Blake and Textuality. Ed. Nelson Hilton and Thomas A. Vogler. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986. 218-41.

Jackson, H. J. Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001.

—.[e] Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005.

Mann, Paul. “The Book of Urizen and the Horizon of the Book.” Unnam’d Forms: Blake and Textuality. Ed. Nelson Hilton and Thomas A. Vogler. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986. 49-68.

Paley, Morton D. “William Blake and Dr. Thornton’s ‘Tory Translation’ of the Lord’s Prayer.” Prophetic Character: Essays on William Blake in Honor of John E. Grant. Ed. Alexander S. Gourlay. West Cornwall: Locust Hill P, 2002. 263-86.

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