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05/11/2015 10:32 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Pages Project Preserves Precious Marginalia From Old Books Online

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By Arianna Davis

In 2007, graphic designer Erik Schmitt, then on the team behind the original Kindle, inherited a portion of his late grandfather's vast and varied library, including poetry, philosophical treatises, and classics from Ulysses to The Invisible Man. While flipping through the volumes, Schmitt noticed that many of the fragile pages were covered in his grandfather's scrawls: French-to-English translations, thoughtful musings, underlined passages. "I was working in technology," says Schmitt, now 55, "but I realized that in our excitement about the future, we were leaving these fascinating artifacts behind."

Inspired to unearth more marginalia, Schmitt, who lives in Berkeley, began spending his Saturdays browsing a local book exchange and a junk store, collecting unique finds. "Within a single book, I'd see some comments written in blue ink and others written in red by someone else," says Schmitt. "People were having discussions. But once the books are thrown away, those dialogues are lost."

After two years of hunting through hundreds of books, Schmitt is presenting his most compelling finds on The Pages Project, a new website where visitors can view passages from works like The Essential Tales of Chekhov (above the line "thoughts, desires, and dreams are no longer my own, but belong to some demon who has taken possession of me...." one reader wrote simply, "Oh my"), and Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein (a favorite of Schmitt's because someone underlined how many times Stein referred to herself on one page -- eight").

The collection currently totals 50 selections, and the site accepts submissions from fellow bibliophiles. "I'd like people to reflect on what may be lost as we move further into the digital age," says Schmitt. "This period in our history might never be repeated."

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