Marginalia: When you’re intrigued but simultaneously despise it.
A friend posted a photo on Twitter recently, showing a library book she was reading that had notes in the margins. Someone had been writing notes in pen, either for their own edification, or for a class, or other study of some sort.1 Someone else followed later in pencil, critiquing the previous reader’s spelling and adopting a bit of tone. She captioned the photo tagging a mutual friend and mentioned he seemed like the sort who would write the second note, but said she knew better. He noted it couldn’t be him, because he didn’t write in all caps any more. I cut in and noted if I didn’t abhor writing in books, I’d wonder if I’d written the 2nd note (hashtag postitlover). At this point, yet another friend piped in with simply one word: “Marginalia!” At which point, I remembered a half-dozen things and mumbled I should write a blog about marginalia. Font Folly thought this would be a fun read. So. Here is a bit of un-packing of my thoughts.
In college (or high school, but I recall it the most in college), books are bought (really leased) and then later sold back in book stores, and you end up with used books that are loaded with notes; in the margins, on the page, within the tables, and along the lists.
If you were very lucky, you had a book that was previously used by a smart note-taker. More often, you have people who aren’t always paying complete attention to the teacher.
So I developed an extreme hatred for notes in the margin of biology, chemistry, history, political science and theory books. Even more, as I was an English major, I detested notes in the margins of novels; textbooks of essays, short stories, and poems; and plays. Because I could never experience the work unaffected by others. I never could get a first, unadulterated read.
I quickly discovered most professors had no sympathy for that argument:
“Just ignore it!”
But how do you ignore words on the page when you’re reading?
“Well, you ignore footnotes, don’t you?”
NO! They’re there to be read, and put there by the author or the editor! They’re intended to be part of the work.
“Wait, you actually read the footnotes?!”
Why wouldn’t I?!
“No one else does!”
Eventually, I figured out that not everyone reads in blocks and absorbs at least a general idea of the block of text at a quick glance.
I have to slow down significantly when reading aloud, because I can’t grab all of the text at once. It won’t come out of my mouth right. I recognize that’s not the best example. Everyone has to slow down a little bit to read aloud. Another example: I glance at a sign or ad block, or even a phone screen; and while I rarely get it exact, I can generally summarize what I saw without particularly trying. In fact, I have to work very hard to ignore or focus on just bits at a time. It’s a nice challenge, if I’m looking to do it. But if I’m trying to simply absorb the knowledge I’m reading, it’s a nuisance.
On the other hand, when I’m reading an article about how a historian or archeologist has discovered something new about monks, or normal people, based in part on the study of marginalia, and how those people were interacting with books and papers they found important at the time; I’m incredibly interested and want to read all about it! Yes, I even want to read those pages, myself! Because then it’s historical record, and in some way, my brain has decided it’s okay, even intended, to be experienced in such a way.
I do realize; it’s a hypocritical reaction. But I can’t deny I find the sociological implications very intriguing and even enthralling.
So I can’t say I hate marginalia. Because it’s more that I have a complicated relationship with it. I would prefer to use post it notes myself, when keeping notes2, and not have to see others’ notes when I’m studying something actively; but I do love that they exist and that there are things we can learn from them.
1. Honestly, I think the original reader was arguing with the text and couldn’t resist him or herself.
2. A reading journal would be awesome, but I’m not that organized and I recognize that about myself.