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Marginalia and Why You Should Write in Your Books

By Leah Dobrinska. Apr 24, 2015. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Rare Books, Literature

When you pick up a book to read, do you also pick up a pencil, ready to mark up the margins with your thoughts and ideas? If so, your written additions are part of a body of writings called marginalia. For many readers, scribbling on the pages of books is a beloved, recreational practice. For others, it’s more of a necessity. Whether they are humorous jots and tittles, lessons learned from the story, or more serious notes of textual analysis, marginalia are simply fascinating.

Billy Collins’ poem titled “Marginalia” provides an overarching look at several ways marginalia are employed. He cites the student using the margins to write things like “irony” or “metaphor.” He notes how in some instances marginalia are “ferocious,” while in others, “dismissive.” In other cases, marginalia are used to convey affirmations of the author's intent with words like “absolutely” and “Bull’s eye.” Collins’ take on marginalia is both humorous and spot-on, and if one were to mark up the margins next to his poem, Collins would undoubtedly receive a lot of “yeses” and “haha, so trues.”

memoirs_marginaliaThat’s the beauty of marginalia. Anyone can mark up a text, and the benefits are many. First, for the one reading and making notes, marginalia add to the reading and learning process. Often times, when we write things down, we remember them better and in more detail in the future. Using the margins of our text to actively record main points and why we agree or disagree with them, rather than just passively reading page after page, helps us to more fully engage with the story, argument, or prose in front of us. Inevitably, we will take away more from the text than we might have, had we not marked it up.

Marginalia are also wonderful to look back on. A worn copy of Pride and Prejudice sits on my book shelf, and in its margins are a series of notes, exclamation marks, and paragraphs starred. I can vividly remember the time I read the story and finally decided that that iconic first sentence just had to be underlined as well as highlighted with the word “love!” in the margin. In a way, marginalia make my copy of Pride and Prejudice a personal artifact of reactions to my most favorite story. I’m hopeful that you have a similar example. Looking back at marginalia is a source of great joy—a jog down book-reading memory lane, if you will.

For many, writing in the margins is a personal endeavor. One doesn’t need to worry about anyone else looking at his takeaways or judging her for her reaction to particular passages, that is, unless she loans out a copy of her marked-up book, doodles in the margins of a library’s copy, or tells you about them in a blog post. In those instances, for better or for worse, marginalia can be thrust into the public eye.

Herman_Melville-1This is especially true when we see famous author’s marginalia. What keener insight can we have to their thought processes than when we see the notes they make when reading? Herman Melville’s marginalia in a collection of John Milton’s poetry, an author whom Melville drew much inspiration from, prove just how deep of an influence Milton had on Melville. In an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, William Giraldi states, “Checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs reveal the passages in Paradise Lost and other poems that would have such a determining effect on Melville's own work.” Marginalia also go a long way in verifying the authenticity of signed books. It is one thing to forge a signature, but it is nearly impossible to imitate a whole book full of an author's marginal notes.

It’s funny to me that as children, we were always instructed never to write in our books. It was seen as a form of defacement, especially if the copy didn’t belong to us. But, I’ve found later in life that I love when I’m reading a book and see someone else’s marginalia. It’s as if I not only get to read the original story, but also get to imagine someone else reading it. That individual’s notes give me a glimpse into what they thought was important or funny or just plain wrong. For anyone who reads a text after it has already been marked up, the marginalia are an added bonus.

Truly, marginalia are educational. So, I say, to heck with limiting our children’s creative process, and that of our own. Let’s write in books, even library books, within reason. Let’s record what we think is funny, interesting, or ground-breaking. After all, who knows where we’ll find the next Melville. Perhaps one day we’ll look at your copy of Paradise Lost, read the notes you left for us in the margins, and gain a deeper insight into how that great poem influenced you to write the best-selling work you have since published. Go ahead, grab your pencil or writing instrument of choice and get reading.

As book collectors and general literary enthusiasts, we want to hear your take on marginalia. Love? Hate? What will happen to the process now that we’re in the age of the e-book? Will marginalia soon become a lost art or are there ways to preserve the scribbles? Maybe even enhance them? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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Leah Dobrinska
Writer, editor, and lover of a good sentence, a happy ending, and the smell of books, both old and new. Enjoys reading children's lit to her daughters, home-improvement magazines with her husband, and Shakespeare by herself.


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