The Vanishing, Civilizing Art of Marginalia



Sometimes the notes are ferocious,

Skirmishes against the author

Raging along the borders of every page

In tiny black script. . . .



I smile at Billy Collins’s “Marginalia,” because I always used to scribble outrage or applause in the margins of my books. I used to dogear the pages, too—I think it was my husband’s first pang of disillusionment, realizing he had married a woman who would so deface a book. But when people lent me novels, I liked seeing how far they had gotten each night; liked the sense of someone having been there before me.

Notes jotted in a margin carry on a conversation with future readers. Not with the authors themselves, mind, and often it is lucky for them that they remain oblivious. “Oh throw this dude out,” Mark Twain scrawled in exasperation while reading More Tramps Abroad. In another book, Twain wrote that a “cat could do better literature than this.” When the esteemed painter Sir Joshua Reynolds set down his ideas, William Blake wrote on the title page, “This man was hired to depress art.”

Marlene Dietrich read the famous first sentence of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers—“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me”—and wrote “That’s when I stopped reading.”

Angered by his agnosticism, the English feminist and devout Anglican Mary Astell jotted on the flyleaf that Pierre Bayle’s Pensées diverses sur la comète was “a loose, rambling, incoherent rapsody [sic].”

There are of course sweeter bits of marginalia: exclamation points of agreements, the “Ha!” of amusement, checkmarks or “YES!” or “love this” or, God help us, hearts and smiley faces. But it is the choleric notes that make me smile—and the darkly insightful ones that stop me dead. Who can read without shuddering the words David Foster Wallace underscored—long before he killed himself—in Don DeLillo’s End Zone: “There’s nothing out there but a dull sort of horror. You can’t just churn it up into your own fresh mixture. Hero, rogue and symbol that you are.” Simply underlining that passage did not feel like enough; he added “DFW” in the margins.

In her copy of The Great Gatsby, Sylvia Plath—who grew up a pleasing and seemingly well-adjusted child, then wrote poems comparing her father to a Nazi—gave us clues. Next to a remark Daisy makes to her little daughter Pammy, “I wanted to show you off,” Plath scrawled “stage property.” Next to Daisy’s comment that Pammy does not resemble her father—“She looks like me”—Plath wrote, “No real relation to the child.” Daisy, in other words, was all about Daisy.

Marginalia do what my grandmother urged herself (deprived of college by seven children and the expectations of her era) when she learned a new vocabulary word: “Make it your own.” Comment, question, interact. Like Twain, when he asked in the margins of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the HMS Beagle Round the World, “Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?”

There is a wonderful texture—like a bit of Bach’s counterpoint, separate melodies finding harmony by challenging each other—when great thinkers read and comment. Voltaire writes in the margins of Rousseau’s philosophizing about the state of nature, “I almost dare assure you, that the state of reflection is a state against Nature, and that the man who meditates is a depraved animal.”

Hence the obvious brilliance of Flann O’Brien’s idea for a service marketed to the wealthy: Dog-earing the leatherbound books they buy to fill their floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, dripping a little red wine here and there, staining a few pages with peanut butter and, most important, writing, “Rubbish!” or “Why?” or “Yes, but cf. Homer, Od., iii, 151.” Marginalia are proof that we have read, grasped, and reacted; that we have an open mind, but it is a mind of our own.

Once marginalia came close to being a literal proof: Pierre de Fermat used the margins of the Greek treatise Arithmetica to hint at a marvelous proposition he had discovered, and the cryptic clue drove mathematicians crazy for centuries. And Sir Walter Raleigh used a book’s margins to write his final words before he was beheaded for treason.

I am reformed; convention and marital pressure have stayed my pen, and I only dog-ear on airplanes or in moments of mutiny. With library books, I was always better behaved—never had Joe Orton’s nerve, though I would love to read the obscene and supposedly quite funny remarks he made in the books he and his lover sabotaged. The Brits did prosecute, but the Islington library preserved the books. My own library might not be so impressed: The librarians attach a green Post-it to each title page, verifying that the book was pristine when I borrowed it, so if any raspberry jam shows up, we will all know whose fingers were sticky.

This is the modern convention: that reading a book is like camping in a state park, and we should leave nothing of ourselves behind. Reading rooms confiscate your pen and hand you a stubby two-inch pencil in its stead. I do understand why. But there is a paradox here: Marginalia began when books were rare and precious, copied out by hand on vellum. The notion was that each reader left notes and tips for the next reader—or, if bored, doodled monkeys playing the bagpipes, chimera, knights jousting with snails, flatulent fools, defecating goats, dismembered penises, or naked bishops. Only when books became commonplace, cheap to produce and readily disposable, did we begin insisting that they remain pristine. A survey done at the University of Copenhagen found that fifty-two percent of respondents had a negative attitude toward marginalia. What if all such scribblings were erased? Some readers did say they would miss marginalia, and others suspected they would not notice the absence. But a full forty-one percent said they “would feel liberated if the annotations by previous readers were gone for good.”

This saddens me.

One could wish Coleridge had been kinder, refraining from the use of red ink to mark up everything he read. But I do love his abbreviations: LM for a ludicrous metaphor; N for nonsense. . .  . The internet is loud with insult but far more ephemeral than paper. More surely and gently, without messy confrontations, jotted notes can forge a community of readers across many generations. They explain people to one another, decipher ideas, echo agreement.

Books deceive us by seeming so docile, waiting silently on our nightstand or standing obediently on a shelf. But reading is not the quiet and solitary act it pretends to be. A lively art, it demands far more from us than we realize. Squiggles of ink are not fait accompli, like film; rather, they are kits we must assemble in our heads, bringing our own imagination, associations, experiences, and emotions. Everybody ends up with a slightly different version. Marginalia layer our responses, letting us react to previous readers as well as to the text itself.

Granted, how I feel about these comments depends upon their author. Someone clever, who appreciates the same sort of thing I do or can challenge me to rethink my assumptions, seems an artist, their marginalia worthy of posterity. But a dolt who has underlined every other word or wants to evangelize a worldview I find abhorrent? A saboteur, guilty of the unthinkable.

In “Marginalia,” Collins recalls stopping mid-read, using his thumb to hold his place while he tried “. . . to imagine what the person must look like/Who wrote ‘Don’t be a ninny’/Alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.”

Better to wonder, though, than to have no idea anyone could have ever thought such a thing. We seesaw between pristine texts and mean jabs online, and instead of jotting quips and questions, we marginalize each other.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.