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Create Marginalia in Every Book You Read

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

How to be sinful and complimentary at the same time

Mark Twain's Marginalia on Plutarch's Lives
Marginalia by Mark Twain

“Writing in books is a sin,” or so they said

“You will be CHARGED for the entire textbook if you return it with marks in it!”

I cowered in my seat. It was the first day of seventh grade, and as a “straight-arrow-follow-the-rules-kind-of-kid,” I was terrified that a stray pencil mark would bring down the wrath of my teachers and I’d skulk onto eighth grade, my reputation forever besmirched by my habit of marking in books.

The fear followed me through high school. Rented textbooks had to be returned in pristine condition…or as pristine as possible after a passel of students had used them for five years. Students who dog-eared pages, penciled mustaches onto faces, wrote dirty limericks and crude comments on the pages would pay for the book at the end of the year — and so would any studious pupil who dared to underline or highlight concepts. Any indication that the book had been used was a defacing of school property.

Something was wrong with that philosophy. Using books shouldn’t be a sin.

The forbidden thrill of marginalia

When I got to college, I discovered the joy of owning used books. Neon- highlighters were now an essential tool, and I gloried in the rainbow of colors at my disposal and the freedom to emphasize text that I found interesting. At long last, I could choose to commit a sin and perform what — for six long years — teachers had referred to as “literary vandalism.” Not only could I write in books whenever and wherever I wanted, but I could read the notes others had made before me.

Finding notes from previous readers was like having a spirit guide through a world of words. In an essay entitled “Marginal Obsession with Marginalia,” in The New Yorker, Mark O’Connell says,

“A book someone has written in is an oddly intimate object; like an item of clothing once worn by a person now passed away, it retains something of its former owner’s presence.”

Other hands had caressed the same pages, arousing ideas that they shared with me. The ghosts of their thoughts lingered like fragrance and wafted into my brain. My delight blended with their highlighted passages. It commingled with their quirky notations. My pleasure was amplified by the author’s original ideas. Then it was titillated by my literary voyeurism, seeing intense reactions from other literature lovers. I soared to new heights of awareness, an intellectual orgasm of perception.

Marginalia was mine!

But marginalia also belonged to the great writers of all time

Shakespeare did it

Scholars believe that a volume of Montaigne’s writing was owned by William Shakespeare and that he noted — and lifted — phrases.

Edgar Allan Poe NEEDED it

Edgar Allan Poe contemplated the size of the margins in a book before he purchased it. Otherwise, there would not be enough room for his marginalia:

“In getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”

Melville was obsessed with it

Herman Melville’s copy of Paradise Lost is laden with his marginalia and shows how heavily his work was impacted by John Milton’s poetry. Literary scholars see Milton’s Satan in Melville’s Ahab by referencing the heavy notations, including underscores, Xs, and checkmarks Melville made as he read.

Mandella claimed it

While in prison in 1977, Nelson Mandella wrote his name in the margin by a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that resonated with him: “Cowards die many times before their deaths.”

Nabokov used it

In an edition of Fifty-Five Short Stories from The New Yorker, 1940–1950, Vladimir Nabokov went down the Table of Contents and penciled in a grade for each of the stories included. Only two stories received an A+. His “Collete” was one of them. The other was “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” by J.D. Salinger.

Twain critiqued with it

Twain left acerbic comments in the margins of his books, giving authors like John Dryden, Robert Browning, Rudyard Kipling, and Charles Darwin a piece of his mind. “Nothing could be stupider” is written into the margin in a book by Walter Besant, emphasizing Twain’s disdain for the idea that books could be sold by advertising.

Greene journaled with it

Graham Greene left a library of 3000 heavily annotated books when he died. The marginalia included flight itineraries, plot outlines, opinions on politics, word counts, and bits of dialogue.

Plath responds with it

A copy of F.S. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby includes consistent underlining and notes by Sylvia Plath. When Daisy mocks her own sophistication, Plath writes in the margin, “l’Ennui,” a French term for the feeling of boredom. Shortly afterward, Plath wrote a poem of the same name including the line, “…while bored arena crowds for once look eager, / hoping toward havoc…

Kerouac was inspired by it

The 1957 book, On the Road, catapulted Jack Kerouac to literary history. He had borrowed and never returned a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers from the library. The line he had underlined was “The traveler must be born again on the road.

Who writes in their books and why do we do it?

George Steiner was a writer and philosopher who studied the interaction between society and language and literature. He defined an intellectual as

“quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.”

But it’s not just the intellectuals who engage in marginalia. It’s the famous, the infamous, the obscure, the inane, and the insane. The rich and the poor. Readers, writers, teachers, students. Geography, period, and health have nothing to do with the urge to write in our books. Millions of people throughout time have generated fascinating marginalia for multiple reasons.

1. To interact with the text

We make notes, comments, arrows, and sketches because we react to the ideas embedded in the words. In the words of Poet Laureate, Billy Collins,

“Sometimes the notes are ferocious, Skirmishes against the author Raging along the borders of every page In tiny black script… Other comments are more offhand, dismissive — “Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” — ”

2. To record ideas for later use

The text we’re reading ignites ideas — sparks of thought that explode in different directions for different folks like fireworks erupting in multiple directions across a night sky. No matter how many copies there are of any book, each notated book will have unique marginalia.

3. To improve our writing

Marking awkward sentences shows us what NOT to do. Notating effective passages illustrate how good writing looks. Mark Twain was famous for demeaning other writers’ work in his marginalia. I do the opposite and notate passages with interesting sentence structure or beautiful language. “Look at this!” “I’ll have to try this,” or, “I like this because …”

4. To get into a writer’s mind, living or dead

Responding to the author is like engaging in conversation, a purposeful closing of the distance between two people. It’s like telepathy across the ages with the greatest minds of all time. David Cramer expresses it this way:

“That’s not intended to be as nerdy stalkerish as it sounds — it’s more about going from passive reader to involved student, where the novel becomes a textbook for me, and aren’t textbooks meant to be scrawled in as learning devices?”

Unexpected benefits of marginalia

Writers are born to write, to physically wrestle the thoughts in their head onto the paper with pen or keyboard. Writing in books helps scratch the itch to have ink flowing from our fingertips.

Another advantage of creating marginalia is that notes are in one place and not located in multiple notebooks or stashed in computer files. You can see the genesis of your idea.

Pull any book off the shelf that you’ve notated and you’ll remember where you were at a particular moment in time. Events of your life, your psychological state, and your emotional health will be evident to you in the jottings in the margins.

If you’re a book collector, marginalia helps prove ownership and provenance. It’s hard to fake a whole book full of handwritten notes.

To preserve, protect, and defend marginalia

When Andrew Stauffer’s students at the University of Virginia went to the library to examine the volumes of once-prominent 19th Century poet, Felicia Hemans, they were astounded by the amount of marginalia they discovered on the pages. Greeting cards were found in between the pages. Inscriptions, annotations, and drawings were an added dimension to the power of her poetry. Stauffer had an epiphany:

“It suddenly clicked. This wasn’t noise or damage — this was augmentation.”

Book Traces was born, a project initiated by Stauffer at the UVA which documents and digitizes all the marginalia found in books on library shelves. When libraries digitize a pristine copy of a book, all the unique energy and insight provided in the marginalia is lost. He decided to collect the jottings and ephemera that “augment” the text. The Book Traces project is different from others because it focuses on “ordinary” books notated by average citizens.

The Book Traces project expanded to other universities, and to date, 3000 pieces of marginalia have been cataloged, including paper doll clothes pressed between pages, an elegy a woman wrote for her 7-year-old daughter, and (my personal favorite) notes in Poems and Ballads by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that detail the lines a woman and her long-lost lover had read together.

Augmentation,” to be sure.

Marginalia in the future

Some people think that ebooks and digitized versions of books in the future will create a utopia for marginalia. Will readers be able to make drawings and scribble comments on electronic readers that would be saved for other people? Could all remarks be visible while reading? What if you could see the highlighting of others or even select whose highlighting you see? (And isn’t that one of the coolest features of Medium? I love it when someone highlights what I’ve written because I know they responded to a thought or a snippet of language I had composed.)

If we make marginalia — according to Edgar Allan Poe — it’s because of one final and important reason: to compliment the author.

“Marking a book is literally an experience of your differences of agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.”

Maybe marginalia will be created digitally in the future. Now the joy comes from indulging in the “literary vandalism” my teachers abhorred. I feel good “sinning” while complimenting an author as I bleed blue ink into the margins.

Marginalia scrawled in red ink
David Foster Wallace's marginalia

Read more about the art of reading in Need to Read.

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