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Do you marginalia?

July 21, 2010

I do, but I wouldn’t class myself with the likes of Sylvia Plath, Vladimir Nabokov and Mark Twain, to name just a few famous marginalians (if that’s not a word, it is now!). And so, I enjoyed a recent article, titled “Marginal”, which you can read online in The New Yorker. It’s written by Ian Frazier, an American writer and humorist (according to Wikipedia).

Since my last post was rather long, I won’t bore you with a long one this time. You’d be far better off spending your precious time reading the article yourself. It is short, just over a page, and well worth reading for its little survey of the marginalia practices of some of our best known writers.

Here are some things you’ll discover:

  •  Coleridge used abbeviations such as LM for “ludicrous metaphor”!(This is apparently known as “hostile marginalia”.) I use shorthand too – but I’m far more boring than this. My marginalia tends more to the descriptive than the “critical”, though I might occasionally be moved to write something like “What the?”!
  • Mark Twain was a voluminous marginalia scribbler, and he too could be less than positive at times, writing on one occasion that “A cat could do better literature than this”.
  • Nabokov “graded” the stories in an anthology from The New Yorker. He gave Shirley Jackson‘s “The lottery” an A … but you’ll have to read the article for yourself to see to whom he gave A+!

And so, do you write marginalia? If you do, do you always do it and what form does yours take? If you don’t, why don’t you?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2010 12:35

    You know my thoughts on this – I usually can’t bear to “mess up” my books, and yet the few times I have allowed myself to write in books for academic purposes, it’s felt so liberating and exciting. But still, for the most part, keep your pencils away from my pristine pages. 😀

  2. July 21, 2010 16:07

    GASP! Shock, horror… I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing. I endeavour to collect first editions, and write my name in pencil on the title page, to maintain its value, that’s all. I also cover the hard cover dust jackets with PVC plastic specially made for books. You can buy a roll of it really cheap and a roll lasts for a long time.

    Anyway, that’s beside the point. If I must make notes I make do with Postit notes.

  3. lithelianas permalink
    July 21, 2010 17:02

    Yes, I do – but usually inane comments or reminders that at that point there is humour, satire, etc. or
    maybe a couple of ‘!!’s to show that I don’t agree!
    By the way do marginalians, marginalise or marginalate?

  4. July 21, 2010 21:07

    I don’t do it either. Like Hannah I have first editions, but I don’t do even in tatty old paperbacks from the op shop. I read with either my reading journal or my netbook beside me and my thoughts inane or erudite as the case may be go either straight into my journal or straight onto a draft for a blog post. Very occasionally I use post-it notes but they annoy me when I’m reading so I try to avoid it.
    I often share my books, and I think marginalia ruins the reading experience for the next reader. I don’t think they want to know my thoughts as they read; they want to enjoy the book as the author wrote it.
    So, to each his own, Sue!

  5. July 22, 2010 00:20

    Hannah: Your books are safe from my pencil – I am very respectful of other people’s books.

    Lithelianas: As long as you marginalate to suit your needs that’s all that matters I reckon – at least that’s what I tell myself.

    Anne S: I’m not a book collector in the sense of wanting special editions. I do cover my (paperback) books but, shock horror, with contact. I’m an archivist/librarian and know this is not the thing to do for preservation but I cover them so they will stay in good condition for my lifetime.

    Lisa: The main thing that concerns me about writing marginalia is the lending issue because I do lend them. I write in pencil with the idea that I will remove my scribblings – partly because they really are very specific to my needs and would look silly to others and partly because I don’t want to spoil other people’s reading – BUT of course I rarely do that when it comes to the crunch. For many years I stopped writing marginalia and wrote my notes separately but that just slowed me down. It’s so much easier to have pencil in hand and make a quick notation. But, as you say, to each her own!

  6. July 22, 2010 00:48

    I don’t write in books, but I do have a notebook. I take most notes when I’m reading academic things though. I tend to be critical when I do. When I read for fun, I usually note down observations that I like.

  7. July 22, 2010 02:23

    Well, I never used to, but these days I don’t hesitate to put marks in pencils and also to write my own index in pencil in the back cover. I don’t know how a reviewer could do otherwise! Unlike Lisa above, I actually enjoy finding other people’s notes in second-hand books.

    Of course – none of the above applied to LIBRARY books.

  8. July 22, 2010 08:30

    I love reading other people’s notes, but I’ve never been big on writing my own — a pencil’s never handy, or I just don’t want to interrupt the reading flow. Now that I have an ereader, however, I find I’m using the highlight function a lot.

  9. July 22, 2010 11:06

    Iris: I love the difference you make between academic and fun reading. My fun reading marginalia is mostly on the like/positive.

    Tom C: Yes, I agree (but of course others like Lisa writes her notes for review elsewhere). I do a little summary/index at the back too. It’s my main source for my review. I too like to see other people’s marginalia and wonder what was going on in their head (which is why I’d rather people not see mine!!). Oh, and of course not library books!

    Isabella: I have been wondering about that function of the ereader – I think I’ll like it when I finally decide to get one. BUT, as I meant to say in my post, this new way of reading will probably mean no more fun Nabokov and Twain marginalia writing for us to enjoy later. Will libraries collect writers’ e-book collections??

  10. July 22, 2010 16:41

    Re your comment on Isabella – Another reason for my dislike of the whole e-book thing. I hate the thought of losing paper and binding, the distinctive look and feel of each volume, the sheer physicality of a book. Reading lamps shedding soft light on the page. I am a tekkie in most regards, but I baulk at e-books – its creeping dinosaurity I expect – a younger person wouldn’t feel like this presumably.

    • July 22, 2010 23:21

      Well said Tom… I’m resisting too though I think there’ll come a time, if not now, then when I move into a retirement village and have to downsize!

  11. July 25, 2010 06:08

    Yes, I’ve been known to marginalia (is that even a sentence?). My copy og ‘House of Leaves’ is atrocious. If anyone ever reads it, beware, it’s a book that is esp. given to writing in the margins. It becomes a damn addiction.

    Found your blog through the blog hop and I’ve added it to my blogroll. I love your choice of reading material.

    Have a great weekend! Zee.

    • July 25, 2010 09:50

      Thanks for popping by Zee…I had no idea I could be found at Bookblogger hop! I’m not very active in memes etc, as I have quite a bit of involvement in online bookgroups. There’s only so much time etc etc! And LOL no, I don’t think it is a sentence but I reckoned the shorthhand would work and sounded zippier! I haven’t read House of leaves though one of my online groups did. As I recollect it got a lot of discussion going so I can imagine it would get a lot of marginalia from we marginalians!

      Have had a quick look at your blog. Nice. And it does seem as though we read similar books. Must say I liked Nocturnes more than you seem to have, but I do also love Murakami as you have probably seen.

  12. July 27, 2010 00:00

    Never, it’s just not in me to write in a book. I don’t like others writing in them either, I even avoid signed copies for that reason.

    “Who is this author and why are they writing in my book? Stop, stop!”

    I am I admit scarred somewhat from growing up on library books, which routinely contained marginalia generally of extraordinary banality. It was worse when I was studying law, someone would inevitably have marked up the cases or textbooks and every time they’d got it wrong. It was incredibly distracting to have irrelevant stuff written next to the text or the wrong bits heavily underlined.

    No idea why they never got it right, but perhaps people who understood what the book was saying were also smart enough not to mark up books they didn’t own (many very smart people marked up books, but their own books rather than those everyone had need of).

  13. July 27, 2010 03:05

    What a great article! I have heard Coleridge’s friends used to lend him books and ask him to write in them. And I nearly hooted at who got Nabokov’s A+! If the book is bad I love to write in it. If the book makes me mad I love to write in it. If it is a book like Jane Austen I love to write in it. Most books I refrain though I don’t know why. When I am reading on my Kindle though I happily underline and make notes without a second thought.

  14. July 27, 2010 09:54

    Max: I would never write in a book that wasn’t my own. That’s a no-no (just like I never read a book first that I buy for someone else). However, I fear that my marginalia is pretty banal (but I hope not wrong!) as I mostly use it to mark things of interest, describe what’s going on, notate stylistic things etc, rather than to express opinion – unless something is really outrageous!

    Stefanie: That’s fascinating – your marginalia is clearly emotionally driven (which I sometimes wish I did more of) whereas mine is probably more analytically/descriptively driven to hep me write my reviews. I love the fact that you use the Kindle facility. That is the one thing that really appeals to me about the Kindle.

  15. July 27, 2010 21:09

    It never occurred to me you would WG, it was more of a general comment.

    One’s own marginalia I should think can be however one wishes. It was the marginalia on shared or public books that had struck me more.

    • July 27, 2010 23:10

      Max, Don’t worry, I didn’t take your comment as implying I would – just wanted to make the point that I agreed with you, really. My marginalia makes me anxious about lending books. If I can, I erase most of it before I lend but of course sometimes people are here and say “do you have..?”. Somehow my marginalia feels like exposing myself to ridicule, more than my blog!

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