The social life of marginalia
“This, it seems to me, would be something like a readerly utopia. It could even (if we want to get all grand and optimistic) turn out to be a Gutenberg-style revolution—not for writing, this time, but for reading. Book readers have never had a mechanism for massively and easily sharing their responses to a text with other readers, right inside the text itself.”
— Sam Anderson, The New York Times Magazine critic
“Marginalia” refers to the notes and scribbles made by readers in the margins of their texts. As the reader’s ongoing dialog with a text, it takes different forms — drawings in illuminated manuscripts, decorations, doodles, and such.
“Marginalia was more common in the 1800s. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a prolific margin writer, as were William Blake and Charles Darwin. In the 20th century it mostly came to be regarded like graffiti: something polite and respectful people did not do. (…)
But marginalia never vanished. When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa in 1977, a copy of Shakespeare was circulated among the inmates. Mandela wrote his name next to the passage from “Julius Caesar” that reads, “Cowards die many times before their deaths.”
Studs Terkel, the oral historian, was known to admonish friends who would read his books but leave them free of markings. He told them that reading a book should not be a passive exercise, but rather a raucous conversation.
Books with markings are increasingly seen these days as more valuable, not just for a celebrity connection but also for what they reveal about the community of people associated with a work. (…) In his poem “Marginalia,” Billy Collins, the former American poet laureate, wrote about how a previous reader had stirred the passions of a boy just beginning high school and reading “The Catcher in the Rye.”
As the poem describes it, he noticed:
A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
“In getting my books,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 1844, “I have always been solicitous of an ample margin; this is not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of penciling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” (…)
It’s a sentiment that a certain type of reader might be inclined to endorse by underlining, asterisking, or even scrawling “yes!” in the adjacent margin. Such readers feel that they aren’t really giving a book their full attention unless they’re hovering over it with a pencil, poised to underline or annotate at the slightest provocation. George Steiner memorably defined an intellectual as “quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.” (…)
No doubt this partly explains why there was such widespread interest in the contents of David Foster Wallace’s archive when it was acquired by the Ransom Center, in 2010. There’s something deeply gratifying, after all, about seeing how one of the most important writers of his generation modified Cormac McCarthy’s author photo, in a copy of “Suttree,” with spectacles, mustache, and fangs. It’s not as though Wallace never clowned around in his actual writing, of course, but this particular kind of goofiness—spontaneous, distracted, childish—makes him seem especially vivid and present. It’s probably not quite what Steiner had in mind with his definition of the intellectual, but it gives us a glimpse of a Wallace we wouldn’t otherwise have had access to.”
Inside cover of David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. (Harry Ransom Center)
— Mark O’Connell, The Marginal Obsession with Marginalia, The New Yorker, Jan 26, 2012.
[This note will be gradually expanded]