Marginally Coherent Thoughts on Marginalia

I’m a bit indecisive when it comes to writing in books.  On one hand, I do love books as physical objects, and I prefer to see them well cared for.  On the other hand, there is something tremendously appealing about writing notes in the margins as you read; it makes the reading experience more interactive and therefore more memorable, leading, in my experience, to better retention and deeper consideration of the subject matter.  It’s also arguably important to history: some of history’s most memorable people wrote in their books, and it taught us a lot about them.

In an age where reading is undergoing major changes, the question of marginalia has come up a lot.  Does the rise of e-books make marginalia irrelevant?  Does it make it more or less acceptable?  Are physical books more or less sacrosanct now that so much of our data is stored electronically?

In a 2012 article for The New Yorker, Mark O’Connell references a series of articles by Sam Anderson, New York Times critic at large:

[Anderson] characterized writing in books as a way “not just to passively read but to fully enter a text, to collaborate with it, to mingle with an author on some kind of primary textual plane.” He also laid out his fantasy about how e-books might lead to a new golden age in marginalia, whereby readers could share their own electronic jottings and read those of others:

This, it seems to me, would be something like a readerly utopia. It could even (if we want to get all grand and optimistic) turn out to be a Gutenberg-style revolution—not for writing, this time, but for reading. Book readers have never had a mechanism for massively and easily sharing their responses to a text with other readers, right inside the text itself.

This enthusiasm for an underpraised form of writing is infectious, and he makes a compelling case for marginalia-sharing as a means of giving readers’ observations more currency in the literary exchange. But I think he underestimates the extent to which most readers value annotations precisely because they are a private exchange between themselves and whatever book they happen to be talking back to. Personally, I get slightly edgy when people pick paperbacks off my shelves and flick through them; there’s something slightly mortifying about anybody else reading these earnest or facetious marginal interjections (“V. interesting, this!,” “Austen can really write!,” or “Sure, whatever, Wittgenstein…”)

For me the value of marginalia is entirely personal, in the sense that it is reflective almost entirely of an individual’s own personality and the way his or her mind might have been working the day he or she read the noted passages.  It’s a look into both the past–the history of a person’s reading of a certain book–and the historical present–the immortal interplay between the author’s ideas and the reader’s written response to them.

It’s also a way to personalize one’s library: what better way to put your own personal stamp on a book than to note your thoughts in its margins, thus saving said thoughts for your own future use and for posterity.

Marginalia is a polarizing issue, in my experience: people either love it or hate it.  I’ve met more people who tend toward the latter: to these purists, marking up a book is an act of vandalism worthy of punitive measures.  But to others, including myself, the production of marginalia is the mark of a truly immersive reading experience, one so gripping that you simply had to memorialize your thoughts right then and there.  And not just contemporaneously: geographically.  Proximately.  One might argue that the alternative–keeping some sort of reading journal, in which one can write down one’s thoughts without recourse to marring the pristine page–is simply too tedious, and that therefore marginalists are simply lazy.  But to me the placement of notes right on the page in question makes the ideas presented all the more immediate and alive.

Both those who write in books and those who object to the practice have their flaws, of course: marginalists tend to be a bit pompous, whereas dissenters tend toward the precious.

That said, the e-book revolution certainly does present the opportunity for a marginalia renaissance: the ability to take notes quickly and effectively, anchored to individual words and lines in an electronic text, should make for a interesting canvas over the long term.  We’ll just have to wait and see if the experience is embraced.

For me I find that I usually overcome my inner OCD tendencies and end up jotting notes in the margins, happy to have read with passion, even if later perusal of said notes produces more winces than smiles.