zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Marginalia



The New York Times, which I read on my iPad, particularly the non-political news sections of the paper where the obnoxious spin is reduced and the content quotient is higher, had an article that I think will ring a bell with ZP readers:

Sam AndersonWhat I Really Want Is Someone Rolling Around in the Text’

One day in college I was trawling the library for a good book to read when I found a book called “How to Read a Book.” I tried to read it, but must have been doing something wrong, because it struck me as old-fashioned and dull, and I could get through only a tiny chunk of it. That chunk, however, contained a statement that changed my reading life forever. The author argued that you didn’t truly own a book (spiritually, intellectually) until you had marked it up.

….All of which means I’ve been feeling antsy over the last five years, as I’ve watched the inexorable rise of e-readers. I sympathize with the recent wave of public teeth-gnashing about the future of marginal notes. The digital book – scentless, pulp-free, antiseptic – seems like a poor home for the humid lushness of old-fashioned marginalia. You can’t even write by hand in an e-book – at least not comfortably, not yet. As John Dickerson recently put it on Slate, describing his attempt to annotate books on an iPad: “It’s like eating candy through a wrapper.” Although I’ve played with Kindles and iPads and Nooks, and I like them all in theory, I haven’t been able to commit to any of them. As readers, they disable the thing that, to me, defines reading itself. And yet I’ve continued to hope that, in some not-too-distant future, e-reading will learn to take marginalia seriously. And it looks as if that might be happening right now.

According to the marginalia scholar H. J. Jackson, the golden age of marginalia lasted from roughly 1700 to 1820. The practice, back then, was surprisingly social – people would mark up books for one another as gifts, or give pointedly annotated novels to potential lovers. Old-school marginalia was – to put it into contemporary cultural terms – a kind of slow-motion, long-form Twitter, or a statusless, meaning-soaked Facebook, or an analog, object-based G-chat. (Nevermind: it was social, is my point.) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the undisputed all-time champion of marginalia, flourished at the tail end of this period, and his friends were always begging him to mark up their books. He eventually published some of his own marginalia, and in the process even popularized the word “marginalia” – a self-consciously pompous Latinism intended to mock the triviality of the form.

Incidentally, How to Read A Book is by Mortimer J. Adler. A classic 

Marginalia is of critical importance to biographers and historians studying controversial figures. We know far more about such disparate figures as John Adams and Joseph Stalin because they enthusiastically marked up their books and documents with sharp and brutally frank opinions, revealing the true feelings often masked to contemporaries. Stalin, who sometimes used a crayon, would mark certain passages with “ha ha!” which, far from being a sign of the dictator’s amusement indicated rage toward the author – sometimes with lethal consequences. Stalin’s rival and equally deadly disciple, Mao ZeDong scrawled erudite literary, scholarly, sometimes poetical, comments about philosophy and Chinese history that belied his taste for the maniacal ruin of a classical Confucian culture in which he was deeply versed.

Richard Nixon, who clinked toasts of maotais with Mao and Zhou ( mostly Zhou as Mao was seriously ill) during Nixon’s historic visit ran his semi-isolated presidency via marginalia he methodcally wrote on news clippings, memos and yellow legal pads all day long, which he sent to his “Lord High Executioner” H.R. Haldeman, who like Henry Kissinger, discreetly ignored Nixon’s angrier, stranger and more ill-considered notations while carrying out Nixon’s incisive or at least harmless instructions. Harry Truman, known for employing blistering profainity in private, was also capable of the searing marginal commentary favored by John Adams.

It isn’t just e-readers, iPads and PCs that have reduced marginalia. The culture of literacy is in a general decline in America and the “gotcha” nature of modern politics and the criminalization of policy differences have caused political figures to adopt a strategy of eschewing diaries, journals, letters and email on the advice of attorneys. Statesmen are following the old rule of Chicago alderman, “Don’t write it down when you can say it, don’t say it when you can nod, don’t nod when you can wink”. It’s a loss to history. We will know far more about Teddy Roosevelt’s true interior life or Richard Nixon’s than we will of Barack Obama’s. Very little that is recorded will not be, in part, artifice and marginalia is a poor strategy for artifice designed to craft an image or advance an argument.

As part of the diminishing cadre of marginalians, I like to mark up books with colored, ultra fine point, sharpies. Generally lighter hues so it won’t bleed heavily through the page. Occasionally, for especially important passages, maybe one or two a book, a highlighter is used so that in the future, I can lazily pull the book from the shelf and quickly flip to the paragraph in question. I tend to do a lot of underlining and bracketing; when I was younger, I “argued” more with the authors in the margins. Older now, I expand on their points whether I agree with them or not. The Kindle has the capacity to type in notes, but I have not used the function much because most of the books I have read on it are fiction.

What do you do with the margins of your books?

10 Responses to “Marginalia”

  1. Joseph Fouche Says:

    I keep them pristine. However, one of my most treasured books is a Great Books version of Machiavelli’s Prince from the 1950s covered with my late grandmother’s marginalia. Not everyone’s grandma reads The Prince and not everyone gets to read Grandma’s 5o year old marginalia on The Prince

  2. zen Says:

    Bravo! First rate anecdote! And….probably best not to mess with your grandmother.

  3. Scott Says:

    I will put some notes in the margins of something it reminds me of, especially the title of a book where I’ve read the same idea.  Also, for books with equations I’ll often work the problem in the margin.

  4. J. Scott Says:

    I can’t imagine reading a book and not writing in the margins—some of my books are bloody, some escape with mere underlining, but most are annotated for future reference, or because something caught my eye. Fiction falls into this category, too. Sandor Marai’s moving Embers, which I read many years and try to read once a year whether I need to or not, is truly a "mess." BTW, I use pencil these days as ink will bleed on some of the cheaper grade paper. Excellent post!

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    I buy most of my books in thrifts to keep my habit within reasonable bounds, and loathe it when my eye is drawn to someone else’s idea of a memorable passage, so I avoid buying books with markings except if they’re very relevant and very very difficult to find — or the marking were made by someone whose thought interests me.
    I have a Republic in Greek with facing page annotations by a student at my old college who studied Plato under Nettleship in the 1890s, bought when I was 17 or so, before I went up to Oxford myself. And I once had a few of Charles Muses‘ books with his markings — early computer savant? covert genius? mad hatter?
    I used to place a small ink or pencil dot in the margin next to interesting thoughts myself, and keep a list of page numbers on the rear free end paper — but I didn’t like it.  I’m not big on much of the universe of products, but the day I first discovered post-it book flags was a day that lives in champagne!

  6. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Hi Mark.
    Fun little post, this is.
    When I read a traditional book, I tend to scrawl marginalia, much in the same way you do.  I’m a big fan of the practice, as it turns the reading of the book into more of a dialectic between the author and the reader.
    However, I purchased a Kindle for deployments (instead of lugging around a medium-sized duffel bag full of anticipated reading for a 7-month stretch, I carry a Kindle loaded with countless more volumes than the duffel can carry).  The portability is great, but the marginalia is marginal, at best.  Sure, I can scrawl notes, but it’s just not the same.  Dare I say that perhaps the use of screen media makes the reading experience LESS interactive, instead of MORE?  In the realm of marginalia, that’s definitely the case.
    Another little kindle gripe:  the lack of page numbers.  Instead there is the "location" which is much less elegant and more clunky.
    One last note on marginalia:  I occasionally have purchased used books through Alibris and other online used-book sellers (that’s how I purchased my copy of "How To Read A Book").  Occasionally an erudite readers have written interesting notes in those used books, too.
    Semper Fidelis,

  7. zen Says:

    Gracias! This is becoming a festival of nerdism…..as I intended. 😉

  8. Lexington Green Says:

    A dot in the margin.  A page number and a note at the end, as a sort of personal index in case I want to go back and find something.  

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    Neat topic, Zen — thanks!

  10. MMaineiac Says:

    This post was shocking to me. I grew up in a small mill town in Maine.  All the books I read growing up came from the public library, marking in them would have been a cardinal sin. To this day I can not bring myself to mark in a book. 

    I did see some time ago an article about colonial period publications purposely printed   with bigger margins and being considered more valuable depending upon who had gotten their hands on it prior.

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