Scribbling in the Margins.

Andrew D. Scrimgeour (dean of libraries at Drew University) has a nice piece about marginalia in today’s NY Times; it starts with one mystery (who’s been defacing translations of 16th-century texts with green ink?) and includes another (which scholar of religion, Will Herberg or Carl Michalson, actually read all three volumes of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology?) and solves them both, and discusses the marginal habits of various contemporary authors:

The poet Maxine Kumin never writes in her books. Neither does Karen Armstrong, the scholar of religion, or Jonathan Rose, a scholar of Churchill and Orwell. But many do. “We have all seized the white perimeter as our own,” writes Billy Collins in his poem “Marginalia.” David S. Reynolds, a historian and critic, marks up his books, especially paperbacks. He calls it “talking back” to the book.

Myself, I deplore writing in library books, but I don’t really understand people who don’t write in their own books. Like Reynolds, I enjoy talking back, not to mention that seeing my annotations years later reminds me of what I thought when I read the book and provides a hook for new thoughts. But if you prefer pristine margins, more power to you.

Comments

  1. I was staunchly against writing in the margins until I read H.J. Jackson’s very enjoyable _Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books_ during undergrad. That turned me around, and I read through tons of theology, feminist philosophy, and history while marking up my books in the years after.

    Now I read almost everything on the iPad (Kindle app for English, KyBook for Russian) and mostly just highlight. Writing notes feels less meaningful and is clunkier, so I do a lot less of it.

  2. ANDREW! He was my boss’s boss at my first job after library school. He’s SO AWESOME.

    While I am one of those people who gets really irritated at other people’s notes in the margins (because I do not want to know the average previous reader’s opinions on the mystery I’m reading, ESPECIALLY the pearl-clutching former students who have written INCORRECT copy-editing marks in some of our books at work), but oh, he has a point that marginalia can be fascinating.

  3. seeing my annotations years later reminds me of what I thought when I read the book and provides a hook for new thoughts.

    That’s why I scribble in the margins. Many people take photos of their kids as they multiply. Having no kids, I snap my thoughts as they proliferate. I expect them to provide fond memories and take care of me in old age.

  4. But if you prefer pristine margins, more power to you.

    How are we supposed to get in a frothing rage about that?

    Occasionally I feel guilty buying used books that are marked down for heavy marginalia, because for me that’s actually a plus. Some of my own books get marked up so heavily that I don’t need a bookmark; the first pristine page is where I left off last time.

  5. John Cowan says:

    I know there’s no good reason not to write in my own books; I just can’t stomach it somehow (except to correct typos). I remember one page of one book (but not which book it is) that had been catastrophically misprinted: I had to divide the lines into 13 groups or so and then number them in the margin in the order of reading, something like 6, 1, 3, 2, 4, …

  6. Patrick Linehan says:

    I don’t have time to mark up my books, so I hire a book handler for Le Traitement Superbe.

    …suitable passages in not less than fifty per cent of the books to be underlined in good-quality red ink and an appropriate phrase from the following list inserted in the margin, viz:
    Rubbish!
    Yes, indeedl
    How true, how true!
    I don’t agree at all.
    Why?
    Yes, but cf. Homer, Od., iii, 151.
    Well, well, well.
    Quite, but Boussuet in his Discours sur l’histoire Universelle has already established the same point and given much more forceful explanations.
    Nonsense, nonsense!
    A point well taken!
    But why in heaven’s name?
    I remember poor Joyce saying the very same thing to me.

  7. I’m reminded of David Crystal’s remark in the Introduction to ‘Words on Words’:

    “Re-reading the books one read as an undergraduate, forty years on, brings to light an uncomfortable number of ideas that one had always thought of as one’s own! Equally discomfiting is one’s inability to understand one’s own, often extensive, marginalia.”

  8. I know there’s no good reason not to write in my own books; I just can’t stomach it somehow

    Did you mother by any chance used to say “Books are your friends; treat them as such”? Mine did, and it took me a while to get over it. But hey, my actual friends and I didn’t always treat each other that well…

  9. John Cowan says:

    Not that I recall.

  10. Some of my own books get marked up so heavily that I don’t need a bookmark; the first pristine page is where I left off last time.

    This rings true for me as well!

  11. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t usually write in my books. The exception is books I need professionally, full of data that I might want to use and/or opinions I might want to quote (approvingly or not). Then I make a note in the margin in order to find the relevant item more easily, or to indicate a relevant reference or correct an error. Sometimes the marginal notation is a question mark. But books I read for pure enjoyment and interest I don’t like to see marked. Secondhand books I check carefully before deciding to buy. I don’t mind a few discreet pencil marks, but I hate to see a book disfigured by extensive, heavy pencil notations, or worse, ballpoint marks.

  12. Patrick, thank you for the link on buchhandlung, very funny..

    also from there,
    “Imagine my shrewdness in making the ventriloquist misunderstand what he is saying himself! Conceive my guile, my duplicate duplicity, my play on ignorance and gullibility! Is it any wonder that I have gone into the banking business?”
    How things stay the same..

    I like used books with inscriptions and dedications, but have yet to find any edifying marginalia. It’s usually either impenetrable or tediously mundane: I have no confidence that my own will be any better, so do not perpetrate any..

  13. I hate to see a book disfigured by extensive, heavy pencil notations, or worse, ballpoint marks.

    Or still worse, highlighter. Grr, how I hate that stuff.

  14. Annotating your books can be dangerous, though. From C. S. Lewis’s “On Criticism”:

    “My copy of a certain voluminous poet formerly belonged to a great scholar. At first I thought I had found a treasure. The first and second page were richly and most learnedly annotated in a neat, legible hand. There were fewer on the third; after that, for the rest of the first poem, there was nothing. Each work was in the same state: the first few pages annotated, the rest in mint condition. ‘Thus far into the bowels of the land’ each time, and no further. Yet he had written on these works.”

  15. Jeffry House says:

    J. Edgar Hoover used to write in the margins of official reports. According to his obituary in the New York Times:

    ” His language was vehement (This is asinine!”); the filling of all four borders around a typewritten sheet was known as a “four-bagger.” Once, it was said, when an assistant’s memorandum so filled the page that Mr. Hoover barely had room for a comment, he wrote. “Watch the borders,” and his puzzled but obedient aides dispatched agents to patrol the Canadian and Mexican borders for a week.”

    It sounds urban legendary to me though.

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