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Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Chapter Seventy-Eight, in which Marginalia is examined

One wonders if we really need to know this opinion of a former reader. Jennifer seemed to find the comment rather amusing.

On the other hand, Maud offers a quote from the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 201, which finds good reason for the practice of scribbling in books, at least when the scribbler is Graham Green.
[H]e wrote in the margins of his books ideas and images that sometimes became creatively transformed into short stories or novels–Dennys and McNeil estimate that in the books that comprised his collection at the time of his death there were "25,000 to 30,000 marginal linings."

So marginalia can be either a sin or a sacred scripture. Stefanie highly recommends Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books, by H.J. Jackson. The publisher says this is the first book to explore the history of marginalia.

Your Bibliothecary has a personal history of marginalia, as probably do most readers. In our halcyon days we enjoyed few cares, and often jotted notes or underlined passages in books. Soon we decided the practice was acceptable, but we ought to erase behind ourself. When that came to mean too much profits for the eraser companies, we began to mark lines of text at the side of the page just enough to catch our eye later, when we would transcribe the line relevant to our noted thoughts. Later, to erase anything proved bothersome, so we turned to little colored strips of adhesive paper. Unfortunately, as years passed, our thoughts became more than our memory could handle, and strips of paper that once marked a sentence or phrase of much import, now marked only a blank question. What is a reader to do?

Behold, the Dri Mark® Book Saver removable ink pen. This pen features a specially formulated blue ink and a neutralizing wand tip that removes the ink completely, allowing one to write notes in the margins of any book or periodical, and wipe away the evidence when one is done. Skeptical? Well, we were, too, so off to the Mad About Books Research Laboratory we went.

We wrote in the margins of two books. The first was a 1936 hardcover dictionary with rather thin and yellowed leaves. The second was a 2003 trade book with arctic white leaves. We let our notes sit overnight, and then returned to mark them out. With a few quick rubs the ink disappeared. In its place appeared a dampish spot. This spot, however, went away in both books, and there is nary a trace left behind. Upon very close scrutiny, the older book shows the slightest blemish, but the new book looks remarkably new. We must declare that the magic pen worked as advertised.

There remains, of course, the manual labor of having to go back and "magically" erase one's notes. Maybe some things are intriguing to leave as written, a way to open up a fractured dialogue with another reader. Slanderous epithets should probably be marked out with the Book Saver pen. We pose this question then: what methods do others use to take notes during reading? And does marginalia found in a book bother you? Is the practice acceptable or despicable? Would you use even the Book Saver pen on the Gutenberg Bible?

Perhaps the best method to deal with marginalia, albeit in a slightly longer time span, is one employed by the Cambridge University Library. They stash the besmirched book away where, untouched and unaffected by environment, it maintains its otherwise pristine state until it becomes rare and valuable, at which time they find profit in restoring its originally unblemished margins.


  1. Beware the residue! The solvents in that ink or the eraser stuff might dissolve the paper in a few years. (This happens with quilting as well--the "magic" ink washes away but the residue slowly dissolves the fabric and eventually your heirloom becomes nothing but scraps.) Of course if the book is a throw-away copy then it doesn't matter what you use to mark it.

  2. I LOVE marginalia. Sometimes I will buy a heavily-marked-up book just to see what all the notes are about. The best I've ever come across is my copy of Eugene O'Neill's "The Hairy Ape", where someone went through with a red pen and noted SEXY? or SEXY! ten or twelve times in the margin. You know there's got to be a story behind that.

  3. I also love marginalia, it's like getting into someone's head. However, I don't perform marginalia perhaps because I like to keep my thoughts private. The best case of marginalia I have come across was in my Dad's Bible. I am not remotely religious at all, but my Dad was a devout christian, he lived what he preached. His Bible margins are covered with how he would apply the principles to his daily life. It really is wonderful to go back and look at his thoughts and feelings years after he died.

    On another note, I love to find old book marks or receipts or other such forgotten treasure hidden in books. I have a collection of book marks that I have found forgotten in books.

    I recently purchased a used book from an old friend and was hoping when it arrived I would find some jewel tucked inside but alas I was starved. Perhaps I should try again?

  4. To show how ignorant I am, I had no idea that there was a word for jotted notes in the margin. Marginalia. Mmm. Has a bit of a pornographic ring to it.

    At any rate, not being one to normally write in books, I'm not in the market for the pen, but I'm impressed by it just the same. I'd have LOVED such a thing as a student . . .

    No if someone could just come up with a way to bookmark a page that is as convenient as folding down the corner, I'd be all set.

  5. As a writer, I find marginalia to be like hidden treasure. I love it. I, too, have purchased books solely for the markings in the margins -- even the underlinings and emphatic circlings. There are so many potential characters in that!

    I also, though, have to admit something rather embarassing, which you alluded to in your post. I am such a lover of books that for a very long time, I didn't write in them at all. Much like I don't crease spines, etc. They are BOOKS...meant to be cared for and cherished. Then, for reasons still unclear to me, I began to feel that my writerly needs were greater than that of preserving any book -- so I began to write notes in margins.

    Sadly, when I come across those now I am puzzled at my own scribbles. What could I have possibly meant by the double underlining and references to other pages in the book? What were my snide comments and vauge musings about? Years later, I have no idea what I meant.

    So as ridiculous as it might sound to try and decipher a complete stranger's marginalia--I realize I have as good a chance doing that as understanding my own.

    For the record, I no longer deface margins. My faith in the almighty book has been restored.

  6. I too have become an index card note taker. I understand the interest that many have expressed in reading the marginalia of days gone by. There was a bit in Ted Bishop's Riding with Rilke where he wrote about his quest to check out Virginia Woolf's library as part of his research on her -- not the books she'd written but the books she'd read, looking for margin notes she made and for signs of which books appeared to be more often read than others and so on. This struck me as fascinating. However, I have to confess that if I have the option of choosing from a number of copies of a book that I want to check out of the library, I always choose the least marked up copy. Often the best reading experiences are intimate ones, and I don't want that past reader with their notes getting in between me and the book!

  7. Kate, you paint a rather humorous picture: there you are snuggled in bed with a compelling mystery, you turn the page and read in the margin, "that's the proof the butler did it!" and then you turn your head and find some lumpy bloke grinning over your shoulder.

  8. I love marginalia, and like others here had no idea that it was a defined term! I once started a "circular" book club, where we all read a book, wrote our notes in the margins in differing colors of ink (or pencil) and then passed it (via postal service) to the next person in line. (I think we did it alphabetically, so if a new person jumped in it would be easy to know where they should go!)

    Unfortunately, the books all "bottlenecked" at one person, who must still have them... I know I never got MINE back. Shame, too: I was SO looking forward to reading all the marginalia. Thank you for the definition... seems I'm among good company.

  9. Well, Stefanie, I think your first sentence puts this entire question to rest. Right on target.