Books in the nineteenth century were important sites of interaction between readers and authors, and linked generations of readers. Continuing a tradition from the earliest days of manuscript production—one that frequently seems foreign, even heretical to modern readers—nineteenth-century readers often left their marks in and on the books they read. As H.J. Jackson has discussed, many Romantic writers were prolific annotators. Leigh Hunt carried on lengthy marginal conversations with himself, the text, and others to whom he leant his books. William Blake added himself to title pages as a gesture towards the many responses and rebuttals he wrote in both favourite and loathed books. Several of John Keats’s best-known poems were originally drafted in the blank pages of books he owned, borrowed, and gifted. Coleridge, it seems, could not pass by a copy of his own work without correcting, emending, or altering it in some manner. As the items in this section show, the practice of writing in books was not restricted to famous authors alone. Common readers used the margins to record questions, jot down ideas, and correct or ‘improve’ the texts.
Some books invited this kind of interaction explicitly. The commonplace book and the lady’s parlour album, formats that gained popularity throughout the eighteenth century and enjoyed fluctuating success in the nineteenth century, were books for sharing—that is, books in which the owner invited friends and acquaintances to share personal messages, favourite passages of verse, or original compositions. In the 1820s, the practice of sharing books was institutionalized in the production and commercialization of the literary annual gift-books. These books not only invited readers—both givers and recipients—to annotate, they also showcased hand-writing through the inclusion of the ornate presentation plates. Although the literary annuals borrowed heavily from and infringed on the commonplace and album traditions, these earlier practices did not die out. In fact, the commonplace books included in this exhibition come from the 1850s and -60s, during the at the tail-end and after the close of the gift-book phenomenon.