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Inside old-school books, every scribble tells a story

The painting The Death of General Wolfe, by Benjamin West.

Royal Ontario Museum

The first thing you notice in General James Wolfe's copy of An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard – the copy he took with him to the 1759 siege of Quebec, the same copy he seems to have read the night before he fell on the Plains of Abraham – is how neat Wolfe's handwriting is.

I could tell because I had the book in my hands (a ninth edition of the bestselling poem, published in 1754 in a slim quarto volume bound in calf, for sixpence) and I could read the notes Wolfe had made in its margins.

He was obviously in a terrible mood. Next to the epitaph Thomas Gray had appended to the poem ("Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth/ A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown"), Wolfe had written: "Yet were he on this score less happy?"

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Not exactly looking forward to immortality on the battlefield, in other words.

I was fingering Wolfe's copy of Elegy the same day Apple Inc. released the third and latest version of the iPad, one of the devices that has rendered such a book a thing of the past. And yet, down in the subterranean caves of the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at the University of Toronto, where anyone can walk in and pore over old Wolfie's mopings, the custodians of the collection's 700,000 rare items have no problem at all with e-books and digital culture.

Indeed, they love the lure of the online, because as digital files replace printed books as the storehouse of the world's texts, printed books are rapidly becoming more and more valuable as "material objects of print culture," as book scholars like to say – artifacts of the human mind, physical evidence of the way we read and think and feel. In the world's most richly stocked libraries, books aren't dead; they're the newest form of history.

Meanwhile, there is still no agreed-upon protocol for recording the lineage of e-books. No one will own your Kindle after you scrap it, and the most complete record of what you've read on your tablet is probably maintained by the websites you bought from, with an eye to selling you more. But that, too, might turn out to be an interesting account of the way people thought.

"I think it's a fake," Philip Oldfield said, in his Liverpudlian accent, as he walked over to glance at Wolfe's book. Mr. Oldfield is the Fisher's expert on book history, the history of science and medicine, and provenance, having first earned a master's degree in Slavic literature (a typically meandering career in the world of rare books). "What was he doing making notes on a poem the night before battle? He should have been thinking about strategy."

Anne Dondertman, the acting director of the library, sang out nervously, "He's kidding!" As well she might: Wolfe's copy of Gray's Elegy cost $325,000. It had better be the real thing.

Tracing books' family trees

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People have always written in books, despite librarians telling them not to. This is a good thing for the modern book-history movement, which first emerged in France in the late 1970s, just as personal computers appeared. The theory of book history, as described by David Pearson, a well-known authority on provenance, is straightforward: "A book can be written in, defaced, altered, beautified or cherished, to produce a preservable object with an individual history" – and with wider social implications, to boot.

A scholar of the vast, complicated subject of bookbinding can tell where a book was published, by whom; how many times it was repaired (hence how often it was actually read); and how wealthy the owner was (goatskin "Moroccan" covers were preferred to low-rent sheepskin, except by Germans, who liked pig – according to Mr. Oldfield, "that stuff lasts forever").

The Fisher owns a stunning 1594 copy of Euclid's Elements of Geometry, printed in movable Arabic type, which suggests that Muslims had an interest in science education early on. But the text had to be printed and bound in Rome by Italians, because Muslim culture resisted printed books until the late 1800s. The book's physical past tells a subtle story.

Then there are provenance experts, who investigate who owned which books when. Mr. Oldfield's most recent project is a database of 3,000 British armorial book stamps – the obsessively detailed heraldic crests nobles pressed into the leather bindings of their books beginning about 1550. The project had been under way for 40 years before he took over nine years ago; now, after visits to 250 private libraries, the site is online at http://armorial.library.utoronto.ca.

Book provenance is like thoroughbred racing: The original circle of owners was relatively small, but those 3,000 book stamps bred a vast lineage down to the present.

Because of provenance, for example, I can tell you that Galileo first read Niccolo Tartaglia's 1543 edition of Euclid in Italian, a vernacular translation that, in Book 5, finally cleared up the confusing Eudoxian theory of proportion. That theory was crucial to Galileo's work on the acceleration of falling bodies, which in turn inspired Newton. Tartaglia translated Euclid in the first place because he was a student of the brand-new science of artillery, and proportion is very helpful when aiming one's cannon.

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Making their marks: A local habitation and a name

The most common thing people write in books is their names, a habit that dates at least to the 12th century. And not just their names, but their professional qualifications, professions and places of residence, the book's price, the giver if it was a gift, the date it was obtained and even how long it took to read.

Of course, a name is only a start in determining who owned a book, given how random spelling was before Samuel Johnson produced his Dictionary in 1755: Sir Walter Raleigh had a large and important library, but he spelled his name at least 50 different ways.

Others got clever and used ciphers and codes: Sir Edward Sherburne, a poet who graced the earth from 1618 to 1702, translated the Old English meanings of his names (Edward = happy guardian, Sherburne = bright stream) into Latin ( felix servitor, lympidarium aquarium) and signed his books FSLA, staking his claim as one of the earlier known nerds.

Mottos ( Be not dulle), bookplates, book stamps and book labels are all common, as are flyleaf press markings, which librarians used to sort and shelve books in the days before the Dewey Decimal System.

The annotations in Gen. Wolfe's copy of Gray's Elegy tell their own dire tale. The title-page inscription is in Wolfe's hand: From K.L. Neptune at sea. That would be Wolfe's fiancée, Kate Lowther – the daughter of a former governor of Barbados – who gave him the book for his voyage to Quebec in 1759 on the Neptune.

Elegy was one of Wolfe's favourite poems: Biographers think he first read it in 1751, as he was recovering from a hopeless previous romance with a Miss Lawson, a fortune-hunting maid to the Princess of Wales who had already rejected a clergyman with an income of £1,300 a year, and who then rejected the always-strapped Wolfe as well (he complains about his poverty, too, in the poem's margins). Wolfe's mother subsequently put her son in the sights of a gentlewoman with an income of £30,000, but she married someone else, which in turn flushed Wolfie toward Kate Lowther.

Wolfe was ambitious. The son of a general, he had been a professional soldier since the age of 15. Horace Walpole (novelist, parliamentarian and, as it happened, a close friend of Thomas Gray's) once sneered that Wolfe was driven solely by a desire for military fame. But the general's terse and lonely annotations on the poem suggest otherwise – that Wolfe was afraid he had wasted his life for fleeting glory.

Sussing out the Plains of Abraham from a boat the day before the invasion, he famously recited the poem's most memorable line – "the paths of glory lead but to the grave" – then turned to his companions and said: "Gentlemen, I would rather have written that piece than take Quebec tomorrow." Tough luck.

We know the book in the Fisher library was returned to Kate Lowther after Wolfe's death because the bookplate on its flyleaf, two dogs salient around three swords with their tips planted in a pile, belonged to Henry Powlett, the Duke of Bolton, whom Kate married in 1765 – six long years after Wolfe died.

The marginalization of marginalia: You can't doodle in a Kindle

The books-as-history approach turns out to be valuable as well in what it reveals about the shortcomings of reading on a screen. One morning in the Fisher, I met Scott Schofield, a slim man with a shaved head who is the University of Toronto library school's postdoctoral fellow in the history and future of the book. Dr. Schofield was working at one of the library's desktop computers.

Thanks to revolutionary databases such as Early English Books Online, it's already possible to reference digitized versions of almost any English-language book published before 1700 (Google is scanning the 18th century as you read) – flipping the "pages," zooming in and out on details even the physical books don't reveal.

But onscreen reading isn't satisfying enough for Dr. Schofield, or for a growing number of others. A Forrester Research survey a year ago found that 46 per cent of publishers believed iPads and their tablet ilk were the ideal reading platform; today, only 31 per cent of publishers are still enthusiastic. The problem is that tablets give readers the ability to search and surf – the devices are themselves competitors for a reader's attention.

"The materiality of the book is what's missing now," Prof. Schofield told me. "An ornamental letter on a page, or side notes and symbols, for instance – what do they do for the reading process? It turns out they may help with memory retention, and with continuous thinking. Or white space: White space does a series of things for a reader, can help them visualize a section of the text. … I think some of that's being lost on the screen." He does like touch screens, which he thinks help restore some tactility to reading.

Like most people in the book-history movement, Prof. Schofield admires online reading technology at least as much as he is wary of it. "Our ability to search now is incredible. … But how we remember what we read depends on where we read, what the light was like, the smell of the book or the coffee we were drinking – these are all important to what we remember. And I think these issues are at the forefront of anyone trying to understand these changes."

Even marginalia – stuff previous readers have written in books – help us remember what we've read, according to Heather Jackson, a professor of English at the University of Toronto and the world's go-to expert on sidebar scribbling. (She has written two books on the subject and edited four volumes of Samuel Coleridge's marginalia for the Bollingen edition of the poet's collected works. "Some of them are very touching," Prof. Jackson says, "because he's talking about problems, drugs and unhappiness in love. But I also like the ones where he displays his enjoyment of the books he was reading. You can see how important it was to him.")

Making marginalia was once an essential part of reading. Schoolboys and lawyers were trained to make proper margin notes. The process was instantaneous – you wrote right on the page, your words next to its words, with the result that the book became your book as well, a palimpsest of meanings.

But it's hard to make such notes directly on a tablet or a Kindle, Prof. Jackson maintains (and she owns two). Experiments have been conducted in which students were given Kindles with a semester's reading pre-installed: Almost invariably, they gave the machines back before the end of term, in part because they couldn't easily write on it.

The question of how electronic marginalia will be stored and catalogued is just as challenging. Even the Fisher library, which collects every Canadian novel published, has not established a system for archiving e-books.

Up the spine and through the nerves – reading as a skin-to-skin experience

In other words, what's missing so far in an e-book is electricity – not the electronics, but the buzz that travels out of a book, up your arms and into your brain.

Elizabeth Harvey, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, thinks this is because physical books have living memories. She studies the phenomenology of historical events, and believes we learn and remember most lastingly through our bodies.

"Touch is very interesting," she told me recently. "Because while sight and sound and taste and smell are limited to specific organs, touch is everywhere, and nowhere, on our bodies. And because it's everywhere, it's total. It's dangerously erotic. It's associated with contagion and disease. But it's also a profound source of pleasure and knowledge."

Books were made to be touched. "For instance, they were often made of animal skin. The pages were vellum or skin, or if they were paper, the binding was made from skin. So holding a book was a skin-to-skin experience. And so the book had a quality of life. And for the early moderns of the Renaissance" – for whom the sensorium of everyday life was more insistent than it is in our diluted, disinfected, deodorized and digitized world – "the sense of what was alive and not alive was a less distinct boundary than it is for us.

"So, the object could have a sense of life, or a memory of a past life, that could be carried with the object and could give it its own life. The vegetable life of the paper, or the oil of the ink on the reader's skin. So there was something about the creation of the book that was alive."

Prof. Harvey likens the experience of reading a physical book to visiting a historical site. "I really do feel, personally, from my own experience – and this might sound a bit out there – that when I go to Hampton Court, where Henry VIII and his court actually were, that I have some different and even deeper insight into what that was like, based on what my body feels."

As for me, I keep thinking about that bound copy of Gray's Elegy that Wolfe once held in his hands, and wrote in, trying to find the bottom of his regret, that I then held in my hands, 253 years later. Was his life worth living? Was mine?

But the real kick in the pants came with the book's second inscription, a page further in: Given to my mother, Mrs. J. Ewing, by her mistress the late Duchess of Bolton, as having belong'd to the celebrated Gen'l. Wolf.

The great general inscribes his lonely thoughts to his lover in a book shortly before he perishes, as he is about to change the history of the world, and what does she do with it? She gives it to her maid! Harsh.

The book finally turned up in a London bookstore in 1913, and was subsequently sold to the University of Toronto by Morris Wolf, Esq. (no relation), of Philadelphia. It still feels like a bargain.

The moment you hold it and read the general's scribbling, you feel his loneliness, and the hollowness of human conquest – perhaps a thing worth remembering. Thank god, someone saved the book.

Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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