How big can a small mark be?

No two books are identical. It may seem like an unusual thing to say — wasn’t the point of the printing press to make identical copies? — but whether through the realities of production or byproducts of use, every book ends up at least slightly different than it’s siblings.

A book like this copy of Jeremy Belknap’s The History of New Hampshire (published in three volumes between 1784 and 1792) can be found in libraries around the world, for instance.

But you may have noticed that this particular volume carries an inscription on the title page:

So this copy of a then recently-published history of state of Vermont was likely on the shelf of then-President George Washington. That makes this copy already quite different from other copies out there in the world, but what we’d really love to have would be Washington’s marginal notes, commenting on a state in the new country whose independence he played such a large role in winning.

Unfortunately, the pages are bare, as if this was one of those books purchased or received as a gift and then placed on a bookshelf and never opened.

Or so I thought, until recently, when I came across this page:

A single pen stroke, seemingly the most inconsequential bit of marginalia imaginable. You have to look closely to see it’s even there, and the passage it highlights is unremarkable, a description of shrubs and undergrowth:

But if we turn back a page and find the context of the passage:

It suddenly takes on a new resonance:

We can only imagine the President, taking a break from the business of governing a brand new nation, perhaps, or making a conscious effort to study its history and geography. Did he read the book in its entirety or skip right to the passages describing impressive natural features only recently named for him? What was it about this particular description of scrub brush and difficult, steep ascents that captured his attention? Was he remembering a visit of his own?

Whatever the answer, books like this provide a reminder of the eloquence of even the smallest marks and the endless variety of the books in which they’re found. Perhaps best of all, there may well be other such marks awaiting discovery by the next visitor who wants to take a closer look.

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