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History of Marginalia | Prerna Anilkumar

Prerna Anilkumar

Marginalia is a Latin word which comes from marginis (in the margins). There is something beautiful and erotic of being in the margins. Of being in exile. Being there, and not being there.

It is usually rendered in the context of writing in the margins of books. In the present times, though, this is heavily looked down upon in lieu of the sacredness that surrounds the ‘great text’ and the ‘author’. It almost borders on a humble and blind surrender to one voice. A voice. Thus, marginalia is an act of protest. Of questioning, re-questioning and reflecting.

However, there existed times when marginalia was actually the norm. It pleased the bibliophile’s aesthetic and intellectual sensory perceptions. Newton is said to have been a huge keeper of marginalia. Coleridge got books lent to him by his friends expecting him to add notes on the side and make the text richer.  Jefferson, Darwin and Jane Austin were also proud marginalians.  Marginalia was almost like another form of a literary expression.

Any conversation about Marginalia is incomplete without H.J. Jackson who has written a book called Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. This book was to marginalia what Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote was to footnotes. According to her, marginalia as a form of meta-textual intervention reached its peak in the 18th century. This had to do with a democratisation of books, them being cheaper, more accessible. This expansion in private ownership of books played a huge role in the rise of marginalia. Interestingly, these notes were written in private but intended to be articulated and displayed in public amongst the annotators’ friends and admirers as reading itself was a very social act back then.  These annotations border on the lucidly beautiful as well as violently blunt.  For instance, Blake noted in Reynolds’s Discourse, “innumerable blunders and misconceptions … unparalleled insolence and stupidity”.  In the same book Jackson also interestingly reflects on the characteristics of a good marginalist: “The author and the annotator might be a good fit intellectually… or they might be contemporaries with comparable social backgrounds; or they might be experts in the same field. The common features themselves are less important than the ends that common features are expected to achieve, namely a competent and fair reading, or what Coleridge called `genial’ criticism—criticism written in the spirit of the original.”

From its apogee in the 1800s with champions like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, by the 20th century the status of marginalia metamorphosed into that of graffiti i.e. something that respectable readers don’t do. And apart from some exceptional instances this continues to be the case. Some blame our librarians, some, the rise of the notion of the sacredness of written text.

Studs Terkel, the oral historian, famously remarked about how reading cannot be something passive but it has to be “raucous conversation”. Mortimer Adler in one of his most phenomenal texts called ‘How to read a book’ beautifully reflected on the liminal point where true ownership of a book is carved only when one starts writing in it. Making it a part of yourself and yourself, a part of it.

Seen in this light, marginalia thus becomes a canvass for one’s inner landscape to engage with an outer landscape of ideas. Thoughts. Words. It is a space where you melt into the ‘other’ and allow the ‘other’ to melt into you.

Mark Twain is one of the few writers whose marginalia has been extensively studied and read. He famously wrote in the margins of The Voyage of the HMS Beagle Round the World by Darwin, “Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?”. Another one of his very cheekily blunt comments is found in Plutarch’s Lives where he writes, “”Translated from the Greek into rotten English by John Dreydon and others… The Whole Carefully Revised and Connected by an ass.”

Mark Twain’s copy of Plutarch’s Lives

A word coined in 1819, but popularized by Coleridge in 1892, the story of marginalia starts much earlier with bored medieval monks who scrawled on the margins of their scriptures. And in terms of its form, its story can be traced to the manicules (the index fingured signs or punctuation marks).  Also known as bishop’s fist and mutton-fist they were found in abundance in the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio.

New York Society Library; Manicule used to highlight a passage.

It was in 1637 that one of the saddest instances of marginalia emerged through Pierre de Fermat, in his copy of Diophantus’ Arithmetica, where adjacent to an elementary number theory problem he wrote, “I have discovered a truly marvellous proof, which this margin is too narrow to contain.” This one note went on to inspire a whole theorem, though it remained unproved for another three hundred and fifty years.

T.S Eliot’s Copy of Logische Untersuchungen  written by the philosopher Edmund Husserl contained this scribble on the margins: “What the devil does this mean?”. A similar legacy of the marginalia delightfully rushes forth through Mai-mai Sze, a Chinese-American painter and writer.

New York Society Library; Mai-mai Sze’s (1909-1992) marginalia in Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell: Une Saison en Enfer (New Directions, 1939).

Edgar Allen Poe devoted a whole column to Marginalia in The Democratic Review where in one of the pieces he reflected on this act of sculpting a conversation with the author on the margins:

“But the purely marginal jottings, done with no eye to the Memorandum Book, have a distinct complexion, and not only a distinct purpose, but none at all; this it is which imparts to them a value. They have a rank somewhat above the chance and desultory comments of literary chit-chat–for these latter are not unfrequently “talk for talk’s sake,” hurried out of the mouth; while the marginalia are deliberately pencilled, because the mind of the reader wishes to unburthen itself of a thought;–however flippant–however silly–however trivial–still a thought indeed, not merely a thing that might have been a thought in time, and under more favorable circumstances. In the marginalia, too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly–boldly- originally–with abandonnement–without conceit…

De-layering the process more, Poe added that in that very act of writing we ‘logicalise’ our thoughts and so according to him there is no thought that exists which is beyond the structure of  language. This intertwined and intimate relationship between thinking and writing is what makes marginalia so significant.

A fascinating example of how marginalia reflects the true depths and essence of its originator and carves her/his thoughts, we have Jack Kerouac, who in 1949 annotated a library-borrowed Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He never returned it back. Probably because it really became of part of him as Mortimer Adler has already reminded us.  While putting a check mark beside it on the margins, Kerouac specifically circled (and it’s not too hard to see why) a sentence in that book: “The traveller must be born again on the road.”

Another modern champion of the marginalia is found in David Foster Wallace whose annotations to various texts have caught on a huge following online. They give us glimpses of his being that are otherwise not seen in his writing. The goofiness and vividness of his artwork on the margins flows through brilliantly in his copy of the Silence of the Lambs.

David Foster Wallace’s copy of “The Silence of the Lambs.” Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center.

Another aspect of marginalia which Poe also touched upon in his column is the act of observation. Observing not just the text but myself and my thoughts and the various tangents it has been launched into by the fierceness of the text and how it has landed back into reality.

There is also a special texture of joy in reading second hand books with marginalia drawn all over its pages. It as if the marginalia in the book carries the spirit of the previous reader and in a ritualistic way passes all of that to the new reader. It is like being invited to a Meta conversation going on in the Mobius strip like continuum between another consciousness and the author.

In an ode to Marginalia, Billy Collins, the American laureate, birthed a poem titled the same:

Sometimes the notes are ferocious, skirmishes against the author raging along the borders of every page in tiny black script. If I could just get my hands on you, Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien, they seem to say, I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head. Other comments are more offhand, dismissive — “Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” — that kind of thing. I remember once looking up from my reading, my thumb as a bookmark, trying to imagine what the person must look like who wrote “Don’t be a ninny” alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson. Students are more modest needing to leave only their splayed footprints along the shore of the page. One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s. Another notes the presence of “Irony” fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal. Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers, Hands cupped around their mouths. “Absolutely,” they shout to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin. “Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!” Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points rain down along the sidelines. And if you have managed to graduate from college without ever having written “Man vs. Nature” in a margin, perhaps now is the time to take one step forward. We have all seized the white perimeter as our own and reached for a pen if only to show we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; we pressed a thought into the wayside, planted an impression along the verge. Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria jotted along the borders of the Gospels brief asides about the pains of copying, a bird singing near their window, or the sunlight that illuminated their page — anonymous men catching a ride into the future on a vessel more lasting than themselves. And you have not read Joshua Reynolds, they say, until you have read him enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling. Yet the one I think of most often, the one that dangles from me like a locket, was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye I borrowed from the local library one slow, hot summer. I was just beginning high school then, reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room, and I cannot tell you how vastly my loneliness was deepened, how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed, when I found on one page 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.”

Despite all its beauty, in this age of the E-book, the future of marginalia stands uncertain. In a significant move, Kindle started allowing for electronic marginalia in the form of ‘notes’. The reception of this move still being debated in various circles, one can’t deny that something of the spontaneity is lost. It seems more forced. This Coleridgean fantasy is actually not a fantasy at all.

Similarly, Sam Anderson in an effort to amalgamate these two distinct worlds of print and the online came up with A year in Marginalia where he posted one picture of his annotated book every month for a column in the New York Times. Though this was said to lose some of the intimacy of the conversation one has with the text while engaging with it in the margins, the effort was laudable.

Anderson’s piece for April of 2010 on marginalia in the ‘Autobiography of Red’ written by Anne Carson

Adding an interesting perspective, James Bridle, creator of a blog called Book Two proposed that in a paradigm where ownership of physical objects, including books, is itself fading away, the only true ownership that will exist is the ownership of our experience of reading. The e-books, though great at the functional level of reading a text, never capture the metadata of our reading experience i.e. the dog eared pages, the smell of the book, broken spines etc.

And marginalia is an integral part of this metadata. It is important that this space is preserved because that is precisely where our wholeness of the experience of reading breathes and comes alive.  We caress the sentences, we fight with them, we make love to them, we get ripped apart in our struggle with them: all in the course of indulging in marginalia. It is a song where the boundaries between the singer and the listener fluidly interchange between oneself and the text. We can only wait and see whether this song is sapped out of its life with the coming of the E-Books or just metamorphoses into another form.

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