Notes from the edge of the page

To me, books aren’t sacred as physical objects. Don’t let that stop you from lending me one. I’m a careful borrower. I think they should be treated properly and have a few things to say when my kids casually step on them. But as an owner, I’m happy to fold corners, attach page-markers, highlight paragraphs and scrawl in the margins.

I like my books loved and lived in. Marginalia isn’t just an ‘I was here’ marker but proof of meaning and connection to a text.

It wasn’t always like this. I used to think margin comments were only legitimate as study notes in high school texts. I kept my other book pages clean and crisp. But after school finished, I missed the frantic margin scratches even though they were sometimes crammed in so tight you couldn’t even read them.

In the early tentative days, I only used a pencil. I wrote my comments and thoughts nervously, like someone was looking over my shoulder and tutting in my ear. But I grew bolder and pen is, of course, much easier to read.

Marginalia is often discussed in terms of the annotations and notes that were made on medieval manuscripts. These were intended as suggestions for future editions. Margins used to be wide specifically for the purpose of making notes. Edgar Allen Poe, a fan of generous margin dimensions, is quoted as saying 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 pencilling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”

Mark Twain must have had similar ideas as a lot of his marginalia still exists. He’s said to have written ‘cat could do better literature than this’ in the margin of one novel and Entropy has an image of the quip he inserted on the title page of Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men about it being translated ‘into rotten English’ from Greek.

The margin commentary isn’t for everyone. I lent a friend my high school copy of Wuthering Heights when she needed it for her book club but she gave it back a few days later saying that she couldn’t read it because of all the notes. Fair enough. They are distracting.

I can get just as caught up re-reading my own markings as someone else’s. It’s a little glimpse into a private moment from the past. Sometimes I can’t imagine why I marked certain sentences over others. Other times, I thank my former self for leading me straight back to the treasure.

Reading one friend’s book, I felt like I was seeing more than I should. A comment about heartache was underlined. In the margin she’d written That’s how it feels again and again! The second ‘again’ left an indent on the next three pages.

I know I’m not alone in the enjoyment and fascination with marginalia. For those with a penchant to read more there is the New Yorker’s take on marginalia, the Guardian’s article on Marlene Dietrich’s margin calls, the Atlantic’s list of medieval manuscript monk quotes and Entropy’s photos.

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