What's so great about marginalia anyway?
March 11, 2011 1:05 PM   Subscribe

What's so great about marginalia anyway?

I've wondered about this since I was a child, and this recent episode of the Slate Culture Gabfest, where two of the three hosts lament the possible disappearance of marginalia in the era of digital books, made me wonder even harder. I can obviously understand why, for instance the first page of Nabokov's copy of The Metamorphosis is interesting. But what do regular readers write in the margins of their books?

I hear about people filling margins with all their thoughts, and even giving self-annotated books as special gifts, and I'm not sure what they could be saying. The scribbled-in used books I've come across have never really been interesting. So, help. I feel left out of this literary pastime and I want to understand: What type of thing do interesting people write in the margins of their books? If you have examples, they would be very welcome. Thank you.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars to Writing & Language (33 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Reader marginalia can show us how people understood literature int e past, it is a window into the historical experience of reading. For example Cathy Davidson's Revolution and the Word uses reader marginalia (and a lot of other stuff) from the first generation of American novel readers to explore the culture of the early national period.
posted by LarryC at 1:13 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

i've stumbled across a number of books with marginalia in my used-bookstore hunting. some have been from students, and what i've found most interesting among them is when the student clearly disagrees with the message or tone of the book they're reading. watching them form and prepare their argument against the text in the margins can give an interesting counterpoint.

occasionally i'm come across a heavily-highlighted text and try to puzzle out why this passage got yellow, that other one got green, etc. were they they same person or multiple people? what does the color coding signify, if anything? etc.

it sounds like this doesn't really appeal to you, and i'm not sure anyone will be able to change your mind on it. not everyone finds these sorts of mysteries/glimpses interesting or rewarding. there's nothing wrong with that.

i will always choose a marginalia'd version of a text over a pristine one if the option is there (providing they haven't obscured the original text) simply because it's fascinating to see other peoples' thoughts being worked out through their doodles and scribbles.
posted by radiosilents at 1:14 PM on March 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I don't have any examples but I'm not sure so much it's that people are putting interesting things in the margins as much as you are interested in the people doing the margin writing.

When I borrow a book from a friend who has written in a book -- or even just underlined or starred certain passages, I am interested in what they have written/underlined/starred because I care about this person and their thoughts. When I find my boyfriend's copy of Catcher in the Rye that he read in 6th grade because as a troubled kid who didn't do much well in school but read books and his favorite teacher ever gave him this book, I get to view this person who I love now 20 years ago and see things that I would never get the chance to see.

Which is why the marginalia of authors/philosophers/other famous people is so precious to some. It shows you the working of their mind and makes something that is often incredibly solitary a wonderful communal act.

(I, for one, also like getting used books with writing in the margins, but that's more the "fascinating mystery of strangers")
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:15 PM on March 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Which is why the marginalia of authors/philosophers/other famous people is so precious to some. It shows you the working of their mind and makes something that is often incredibly solitary a wonderful communal act

An example of this -

Melville's Marginalia Online:

Since Melville marked and annotated his books with uncommon regularity and precision, the expanding record of evidence reveals his direct engagement with many past and contemporaneous works and figures: the King James Bible, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Alexander Pope, Arthur Schopenhauer, William Wordsworth, Honoré de Balzac, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Matthew Arnold, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a host of others.
posted by ryanshepard at 1:17 PM on March 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

Without marginalia, this poem wouldn't exist.
posted by zamboni at 1:17 PM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

The marginal notes of someone you're interested in--a respected scholar or writer--are interesting. I don't think there's any interest in marginal notes by random public library vandals.
posted by Paquda at 1:20 PM on March 11, 2011

wow, zamboni...thanks... though I wish I'd read that poem on paper so I could write in the margins of this bit:

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

I'd have written "fuck yeah -- that's what I meant to say above.

I would also have written ! ! ! at the end.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:24 PM on March 11, 2011

It's the reader having a conversation with the author. Rather than reading an interesting monologue, you get some approximation of a hopefully-interesting dialogue.

Just Wednesday I made some notes in the margins of a book I was reading when I saw that the protagonist was talking about ideas that I recognized from other authors. I noted that in the margins in hopes that somebody might appreciate the connection later.
posted by aniola at 1:25 PM on March 11, 2011

I love marginal notes (or doodles, scribbles, etc.) for reasons LarryC mentions, but also because they give me a sense of books as objects with complicated histories. (I actually like random notations made by "public library vandals"!)

You might be interested in an article from last week's NYT magazine that deals with questions about marginalia and e-readers.

Here's the link.
posted by sophieblue at 1:26 PM on March 11, 2011

It's my book right now, but I'll probably end up giving it away or selling it.
posted by aniola at 1:26 PM on March 11, 2011

Best answer: I've seen a lot of bad marginalia in my life (incorrect corrections of spelling, grammar, or fact, which obviously makes the marginaliaist feel smarter even though it makes them look like an idiot to later readers.), and very little good. In fact, in my family, there's someone who makes these sorts of sometimes factual corrections, but also makes little personal notes that are there to reinforce for that person the wonderful personal ties to some aspect of the book ("Mother and Father traveled here in the 1930s and brought back the copper samovar I have in the china case"). That borrowers of the book will also get this message of bookowner awesomeness is a bonus. As one of the said borrowers, I can tell you that was the most interesting thing ever notated in a margin by that person.

That said, I love marginalia that expands and extends the original work. I've encountered three outstanding marginalizations, and I have hope I'll find more. One was in a crappy piece of "non-fiction" and started 30% through when a previous reader started writing what actually happened in the margins instead of what the author claimed. It was the best part of the whole book and the only reason I finished it. The second was in a book about Polish history and every time a word in Polish was included in the book, someone had written in how to pronounce that word in the margins. The third one was in a dual latin/english translation of Ovid, and someone had annotated the English translation of specific words and phrases with different choices by translators throughout time. This was tremendously useful both as a student and as a reader of the poems (and interesting to see how word choices from 19th Century translators varied with 20th Century ones).
posted by julen at 1:34 PM on March 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

I've referenced my total non-fetishization of books, just to be clear where I'm coming from. But one of my treasured possessions is the heavily annotated and paper-clipped edition of Tristram Shandy that belonged to my now-deceased grad-school advisor. It's not a fine edition—Norton critical paperback. But when I was given the opportunity to take one book from his library, that's the one I chose, instead of some antique volume worth much more, in dollars, at least.

The notes in that very-difficult-to-read novel are fantastic, his lecture notes, basically, all sort of arrows and page references and little asides and allusions to other works and such. Wouldn't trade that for your first-edition, leather-bound, author-signed collector's item (or a Kindle), no way.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:35 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Marginalia helped me understand the impact of Unsafe At Any Speed. If you read a fresh copy today, all of Nader's observations seem impossibly reasonable, and it's very hard to see why anyone had a problem with it. I mean, Safety! Who is against that?

Toronto Public Library has a first edition that belonged to Oshawa library. Oshawa's the centre of GM's car manufacturung in Ontario. In the margins of this book are written in tiny, neat, yet outraged, late-career auto manager handwriting of exactly why Nader was "wrong". Lots of comments about "we could never afford this", "cars are safe anyway", etc, etc.

So to the anonymous, and by now likely late auto manager, I send my belated thanks. Without your marginalia, I couldn't have understood the opposition to the book.

(Generally, those who write in library books I consider the lowest of the low, but I make an exception for this one. There is no hell hot enough, however, for the person who wrote "this is reason protagonist kills self" half-way through a particularly tense Flannery O'Connor short story.)
posted by scruss at 1:35 PM on March 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

It's a connection to a previous user, making reading a shared experience, without having to talk to anyone.

I borrowed a copy of Jesus, Interrupted from the local library, and found it full of notes clarifying how the author was wrong. Sometimes it was just a few words, other times it was paragraphs squeezed into the blank spaces on the pages. Sometimes it was citations of other books, other times it was direct comments to the author ("Bart, you're an idiot!!!"). I took pictures of those pages, so I could find out what the anonymous writer was talking about, as the book was due back at the library.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:38 PM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I love marginalia. I leave the function in my Kindle that shows how many people highlighted a particular passage on at all times, because it is interesting seeing what leapt out at others. Even when it is stupid, that so many found the stupid thing worth highlighting is interesting.

I hardly ever pick up library books any more, but when I did I often came across margin comments in the books I used to borrow. My first reaction was always irritation that anyone would write in a library book. But then I had to read whatever it was. And it was always intriguing. (Thank goodness, no plot killers.)

I think the different ways that people take in the same written words is endlessly interesting. YMMV, of course. That's the whole point of marginalia -- YMMV.
posted by bearwife at 1:41 PM on March 11, 2011

Well, first, most marginalia is dull. My husband has many obsessively-marked-up books and, man, he either only comments on dull things or is just a dull commenter! Only rarely does one of his comments make me go, "huh!"

But I've seen several interesting examples; the simplest was a borrowed copy of The Invisible Man that had belonged to a high school student, who had apparently traced the themes of "light" and "darkness" in the novel as part of developing a high school essay on the book. Just reading the book for fun, I wouldn't have picked up on the many, many, many examples of it there were in the book. While it can be intrusive, casual marginalia can also highlight interesting themes or thoughts in the text that might not be what I would notice first, so I can be alert to more things in the book.

Visiting the Lincoln Museum in Springfield you can see Lincoln's marginalia in his lawbooks, whereupon I learned that Lincoln and I have problems remembering the proper translations of the same legal Latin terms. :) That was kinda cool. Can definitely be an insight into particular historical individuals.

My absolute favorite books to get (and give) annotated are cookbooks, where someone has used the cookbook and marked up and commented on the recipes, rendering it more useful and interesting. This ranges from borrowing a friend's "The French Laundry Cookbook" and her brother, who is a chef, had borrowed it before me and marked it all up with his opinions, suggested substitutions, comments on when he'd eaten at the restaurant and had particular dishes, snide remarks, etc., (it was worth reading just for that!), to -- the best kind of marginalia of all, IMHO -- inheriting a cookbook from grandma (or mom or a great aunt or whomever) who has over 30 years marked up the book in her own beloved handwriting with family favorite recipes noted and little annotations ... even something simple like "add rainbow sprinkles" and suddenly you remember how your grandma always made THOSE sugar cookies with rainbow sprinkles when her grandchildren visited ... that is pretty much the best thing EVER.

Anyway, if I'm *giving* a copy of one of my favorite cookbooks as a gift to someone I know (really) well, I'll always try to take a quick run through with a pen to add a few of the annotations from my copy to favorite recipes. People always love this. But I wouldn't do it with someone I didn't know super-well. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:48 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you go to Graceland, there's a display called something ridiculous like Elvis the Scholar and shows off some of his books where he's written things like "Karate!" in the margins. Karate had nothing to do with the actual subject of the book.

Other than that, I can't think of many instances where marginalia has been particularly useful to me.
posted by electroboy at 1:57 PM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a trainee rare books librarian, and marginalia is so valuable in literary and historical scholarship that I'm a bit horrified this is even under question! Marginalia is essential to uncovering the engagement of the reader with the text, and a whole history of reading from that. I had a great time recently cataloguing a lot of 300 year old pamphlets by a not famous book collector which was full of little drawings - even if we barely knew anything about his biography, we already had some entry into his thoughts and what he considered important based on what he marked up. He had written his name all over everything and that could help to trace him back to the bookseller, publisher, and to other geographical/political/economic networks, etc.

Bookplates are similar, but no one ever questions their legitimacy in being pasted in. Marginalia is a little more anarchic. It is a lot of fun to see something nasty or funny in the margins (I particularly liked the story of how Elizabeth David wrote a (Post It) annotation in a copy of something called Ulster Fare in 1974) I personally like lunatic interventions in the public library books that I get, provided it doesn't completely interfere with the text. That said, I really didn't like highlighted passages in the books I used for college. Its a bit like street art or grafitti - some of it is really interesting and changes the way you look at your text or urban landscape, some of it is just annoying.
posted by iamnotateenagegirl at 2:09 PM on March 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

I do this all the time. It's just the way I read a book. When I think of something, I write it down.

Sitting down to read 20 pages straight without ever taking out a pen and jotting something down? That's boring to me. Why would you want to do that?

Sometimes I just say whether I agree or disagree with the author's point.

Sometimes I add my own relevant observations (agreeing or disagreeing).

Sometimes I just write a shorthand description of what the author is saying so I can easily spot that passage if I look for it later.

What purpose does this serve?

It keeps me actively engaged in what I'm reading. (Contrary to what people often imply, reading books can be very passive!)

It's an outlet for my thoughts, which would feel bottled-up otherwise.

It's a memory aid: if you ask me later to say something interesting about the book I'm reading, I'll probably think of something I wrote marginalia about.

It's a visual cue to myself if I pick up the book a year later that "oh yeah, I actually read this part, and I found it brilliant / wrong / whatever."

I could scan some examples if you're interested, but I don't know if you're interested in fiction or nonfiction. Mine are all nonfiction. I'm not at home right now, but when I get home I could give you a couple examples.
posted by John Cohen at 2:10 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

But what do regular readers write in the margins of their books?

This question presupposes that there is such a thing as a "regular reader," meaning an average reader... but I suggest that many, many non-famous, non-literary readers are anything but average readers, given the right text. Everyone has some field of expertise or knowledge, formal or informal, and reading that person's marginalia can present the book in an entirely different light, or point out small details and allusions most of us would otherwise miss.

Imagine having early access to a mathematician's notes in Lewis Carroll's Alice books, an accomplished cook's notes ("yum!" or "add cinnamon" or "double, serves 2" or even the bold warning "NO!") in a collection of cookbooks, a linguist's notes on Lolita, an historian's notes in Hamlet. Marginalia from the right source is like a portable lecture hall, or like having an expert peeking over your shoulder to offer advice.

This was especially useful in the days before internet access: I loved being able to flip through my Annoted Alice and find the relevant equation or logic puzzle noted in the margin, or to look up a recipe in my mother's or grandmother's cookbooks and find her handwritten notes.

Whoever inherits my paperbacks of Shakespeare's plays will find a huge amount of hard-won scholarship jotted down on Post-Its and carefully printed in the margins. Whoever gets my copy of the Marion Cunningham update of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook will find my correction of the oatmeal cookie recipe, which was published with an error (baking soda instead of baking powder, which made the cookies slick and soapy), my variations on the oatmeal bread recipe, my calculations for making a big patch of lemonade (along with my improvements on the book's recipe), and several of my original recipes written in the back pages.

In an entire different vein: marginalia afford us insight into seeing how previous readers used or understood the text, occasionally with hilarious results. As a wedding gift, a friend gave us a copy of Ideal Marriage: Its physiology and technique, a surprisingly frank sexual guide from 1926. Paging through it, I was mildly amused by the marginalia... until I stumbled across the word "HORSES!!" in a margin.

Even after I figured it out, I needed a few minutes to stop laughing. The chapter I had opened to, you see, was devoted to lulling a reluctant wife from a state of sexual ennui, and the author advised drawing out the wife by conversing on a subject of great personal interest. (One presumes that the reader's wife's interest in horses is a passion, but not a, y'know, passion.)
posted by Elsa at 2:27 PM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I got a tablet (with a stylus) precisely so I can write marginalia but still read electronically. I find it terribly amusing to go back through something when I reread to see what I thought a few months/years ago.

I am mostly reading technical papers though so I'm not sure this counts.
posted by nat at 2:59 PM on March 11, 2011

Thanks to electroboy: Elvis's "KARATE" in the margins of Cheiro's World Predictions (1925).
posted by steef at 3:14 PM on March 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

The earliest known reference to Hamlet is a marginal note written by Gabriel Harvey in his copy of Chaucer (1598): 'The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, but his Lucrece, and his Hamlet Prince of Denmark have it in them to please the wiser sort.' (You can get a glimpse of some of Harvey's marginalia here.)

Coleridge's marginalia are so extensive that they fill six volumes of the modern scholarly edition of his writings. As Coleridge was a chronic non-finisher of projects, his marginalia often contain ideas and insights that he never got around to publishing anywhere else. (More on Coleridge's marginalia here.)

John Adams was another obsessive annotator of books. The Boston Public Library has digitized some of the most heavily annotated books from his library, including his copy of Mary Wollstonecraft's Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which contains 10,000 words of notes. (More on Adams's marginalia here and here.)

Short version: Marginalia are a crucial source of information about the way readers respond to texts. But please don't write them in library books.
posted by verstegan at 4:00 PM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

My dad was an English professor and every single book in our house when I was growing up was full of his notes. It used to bug me a lot. "Back off, Dad, I'm gonna form my own opinions." His handwriting was awful, bad as a doctor's. Invariably I'd find myself squinting and turning the book around trying to parse out what he'd written, because I was just a kid who could barely understand what I was reading and his notes, although I resented them, did actually help me put the book in context.

Now that I'm a student/teacher I makes notes on everything I read. I try not to give students copies of texts that I've already written on. For one thing, it would be horribly distracting because often every single bit of blank space on the page is filled with manic scribbles. Also, those scribbles often represent original research that I'm not ready to disseminate in any shape or form.
posted by aunt_winnifred at 4:28 PM on March 11, 2011

one of the most famous marginal notes of all time.

Though rather an argument against than for....
posted by IndigoJones at 6:49 PM on March 11, 2011

I am one of those readers who treats his books very well - no marginalia, I take the dust covers off hardbacks when I read them, and I note interesting passages while I read by Book Darts (which I remove when I've written down what it was that I wanted to remember.) For some reason, I can't bring myself to write in the books, even though all the arguments in favor make perfect sense to me: organizing your thoughts, thinking critically about the text, and making notes for a future re-read.

The only exception is the books I'm teaching. Those books I mark up from beginning to end with the points I want to cover in class and questions I want to ask. But in my mind, I classify them as the school's books, not mine, and therefore okay to mark up.

Rationalization is a weird and inexplicable thing sometimes....
posted by MShades at 7:03 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

one of the most famous marginal notes of all time.

Though rather an argument against than for....

Depends on what you think the alternative was.
posted by John Cohen at 8:11 PM on March 11, 2011

C S Lewis somewhere mentions an "amusing piece of private evidence": "My copy of a certain voluminous poet formerly belonged to a great scholar. At first I thought I had found a treasure. The first page [of the first poem, he means] ands the second were richly, and most learnedly, annotated in a neat, legible hand. But after that there was nothing. The next poem was the same, and the next. Thus far into the bowels of the land he had read, and no more. But he had written on these works."
posted by Logophiliac at 9:47 PM on March 11, 2011

I never write in my own books. Like MShades above, I understand all the good, logical reasons that people like to do so, but I just never get over the squeamish feeling I get at the thought of doing it! Strangely enough, one of my absolute favorite books is The Annotated Alice, and IMO, annotation is really just glorified marginalia.

And unlike John Cohen, I do just read 20+ pages straight through without stopping to make notes, but it's not unheard of for me to jot something down I found intriguing...on a separate sheet of paper.
posted by asciident at 11:22 PM on March 11, 2011

Response by poster: I think I understand much better now the ways marginalia can be wonderful, and why it works for some people... as well as why it doesn't for me. Thank you, everyone who has commented so far!
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 9:13 AM on March 12, 2011

Whenever I have encountered marginalia in used books I own, it is almost without exception pretentious and annoying and not interesting.

For me, the most interesting marginalia is marginalia that has utility. Books that have been read and marked up for a specific purpose are interesting to me. For example, if one were to find Melville's copy of a book on whaling or seafaring and see the passages he had marked that were connected with passages in Moby Dick, that would be far more interesting than someone's annoying smart-ass comments (which most marginalia I see tends to be).
posted by jayder at 9:26 AM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Depends on what you think the alternative was.

Writing out the entire proof, of course. Perhaps on the inside cover?
posted by IndigoJones at 7:17 AM on March 15, 2011

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