A few years ago I took a group of University Honors students to the Boston Public Library to see an exhibit for parts of John Adams’s personal library. That trip was perhaps the single most beneficial and intellectually stimulating thing I have done since coming to Southern New Hampshire University in 2005. I remember being immediately struck by the display and the sheer amount of books the second president owned. More interesting still, were the books opened to reveal marginalia written in Adams’s own hand. Here was a president that carried an ongoing dialogue with his books. I recall his handwriting as being small and tight, suggesting a careful thinker as opposed to a loopier, sloppy handwriting made by someone in haste. Adams’s library, what part of it was on display, was so impressive that it changed the way I thought about the man and his presidency.
Marginalia can offer us valuable insight into the mind of a book’s owner. Adams and Jefferson left behind thousands of volumes of books with extensive marginalia. Although I have never seen Jefferson’s handwriting in person, I have seen pictures of what it looks like online. Like Adams, his handwriting seems smallish and tightly woven. However, there is a flourish to Jefferson’s handwriting that does not come out in the handwriting of Adams. Jefferson’s handwriting seems to nudge at the borders of self-display, while Adams’s seems to be more introspective, more withdrawn. Nevertheless, each man had a passionate love bordering on obsession for his books. I can relate. I believe that Adams and Jefferson both went into debt to support their book-buying obsession.
Beyond marginalia, another aspect of importance is the discovery of Jefferson’s commonplace books. For years I have kept commonplace books of my own, but never knew that they had a name. According to Kenneth A. Lockridge in his On the Sources of Patriarchal Rage: The Commonplace Books of William Byrd and Thomas Jefferson and the Gendering of Power in the Eighteenth Century, (New York University Press, 1992), the commonplace books of each respective Virginian strangely suggests that each man was a misogynist, and, in turn, this reveals an even larger disturbing trend among the eighteenth century and ultimately calls for a reexamination of American masculinity during that time. But what is a commonplace book exactly? Lockridge describes them thus:
Commonplace books are books in which the owner has paraphrased or transcribed anecdotes, quotations, and information from other sources, usually printed. They may contain commentaries, original compositions, or even personal memos and accounts, but they are dominated by the reproduction of passages from other works. (1)
Would we have discovered a misogynist strain in Jefferson without access to his commonplace books? Perhaps. However, without these books we would not have the record of a thought process as it was occurring when Jefferson was writing. Commonplace books are unpolished, and often unedited. My own commonplace books are medium sized black Moleskine notebooks, of which I have filled dozens.
What presidents (or anyone for that matter) read can reveal more about them than just about anything else. Last spring Barak Obama was on Martha’s Vineyard, and was spotted buying a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. George W. Bush is said to have read Camus’s The Stranger while in office (too bad he didn’t “get” it), and, of course, Thomas Jefferson’s books have been in the news recently with the display of previously unknown books he owned and wrote in. Indeed, people (it’s seems a bit crass to call them “people,” but human they were) like Adams and Jefferson were defined by the books they read.
The great books, like the great loves of our lives, choose us, we do not choose them. I suspect that each of us have at least one book that has become essential to us. Our personal libraries are a revealing source of our personalities, our dreams, hopes, and desires, even our fears. I’m not sure how much the digital world will change this aspect of our humanity. What I do know is that digital books, or ebooks, do not allow for a personalized engagement with the text in the way that the traditional codex does. Perhaps in the future someone will have access to President Obamas’s iPad or Kindle and discover what he was reading. He or she may even discover marginalia that Obama was able to attach to the text. What the scholar won’t be able to experience is Obama’s own handwriting.
And surely something valuable will be lost to future generations.