Monday, February 28, 2011


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.” - from the poem Marginalia by Billy Collins

I thought marginalia was a fairly new coined word. However unless you consider the early 1800s as recent, the word has been around for quite some time.

Marginalia, according to Wikipedia, "are notes, scribbles, and comments made by readers in the margin of a book. True marginalia is not to be confused with reader's signs, marks (e.g. stars, crosses, fists) or doodles in books.

"The first recorded use of the word marginalia is in 1819 in Blackwood's Magazine. From 1845 to 1849 Edgar Allan Poe titled some of his reflections and fragmentary material "Marginalia." Five volumes of Samuel T. Coleridge's marginalia have been published.

Mark Twain was also known for writing in the margins. His comments were often not flattering to the author, but there was no mistaking his point of view.

According to "Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in the Margins" in the New York Times, the popularity of e-books has some people worried about losing this art form.

“Like many readers, Twain was engaging in marginalia, writing comments alongside passages and sometimes giving an author a piece of his mind. It is a rich literary pastime, sometimes regarded as a tool of literary archaeology, but it has an uncertain fate in a digitalized world.

“’People will always find a way to annotate electronically,’ said G. Thomas Tanselle, a former vice president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and an adjunct professor of English at Columbia University. ‘But there is the question of how it is going to be preserved. And that is a problem now facing collections libraries.’”

“… David Spadafora, president of the Newberry, said marginalia enriched a book, as readers infer other meanings, and lends it historical context. “The digital revolution is a good thing for the physical object,” he said. As more people see historical artifacts in electronic form, “the more they’re going to want to encounter the real object.”

Though I would love to run across interesting marginalia, it’s a habit I’ve never practiced (except for textbooks). To me it’s akin to folding down a corner, tearing out a page, highlighting and other book scarring tactics. Thank goodness for sticky notes. It’s not my fault. Evidently I must have been influenced by librarians and teachers.

“’Paul F. Gehl, a curator at the Newberry, blamed generations of librarians and teachers for ‘inflicting us with the idea’ that writing in books makes them ‘spoiled or damaged.’”

Do you own books with interesting marginalia? Do you often write in margins of regular or e-books? If so, what sort of notes do you make?

Thanks for stopping by today. I hope to see you again next week.

Tags: marginalia, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, writing in margins, e-reader, Billy Collins


Jim Murdoch said...

I'm an underliner. In three colours: blue, red and green in that order - very few paragraphs have more than three salient points. I tried adding black for a while but I didn't like it.

Joanne said...

I never write in my books and don't enjoy reading others' notes in book margins. To me, it distracts from the story, pulling me out of the place the words have brought me. The only notes I write are when I'm finished with the book, I keep a book journal with a few facts about the story and the quality of the read.

Carol Kilgore said...

I'm more a sticky notes person, too.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I won't write in fiction books, but the non-fiction books on my shelves have many notes and highlighted passages.

Old Kitty said...

I could never, would never write on the pages of books. I can't!! It's vandalism - no matter who you are!! LOL!!!

Sticky notes are great and so is annotation in your own notebook with references - laborious yes, but it doesn't hurt the printed book.

Take care

Michelle @ The True Book Addict said...

I'm in your writing in margins, no turning down of corners, no marring of any kind. It's an incredible no-no, in my book--no pun intended!

Darcia Helle said...

Write in a book? No, never. I can't do it. As you said, Jane, it's like folding pages or tearing them out. I can in no way deface a book.

I purchased a bunch of used books a few years ago and one of them had writing in the margins and highlighting all throughout. I can't read it. I don't even like to look at it!

As for ereaders, I have a Sony Touch and it allows you to make notes and highlight. At first, I couldn't even do that with an ebook! But it also allows you to erase those highlights and notes, which makes me feel better. :)

Jen Chandler said...

I LOVE buying old books and finding notes and comments and scribbles in them.

Do I write in books! Absolutely! I'm a shameless underliner too. I like the interaction. I feel like I'm taking part in the story that way! And I'm able to come back to points and remember how they affected me and what other thoughts they ignited.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Jim, it sounds like you have quite the system. I know you write comprehensive reviews, so I can understand the necessity.

Joanne, I like the idea of a book journal. I wish I would have started one years ago.

Carol, my problem is I sometimes can’t remember why I put a sticky note on a page if I don’t take the time to actually write a note to myself.

Diane, your system makes sense to me.

Old Kitty and Michelle, we do have a lot in common! )

Darcia, I can see where highlighting and too many notes could be a real distraction when you’re reading. The ability to remove notes with an e-reader seems like a good idea.

Jen, it sounds as if you attack each book with enthusiasm and that seems like a good thing to me.

Anonymous said...

I used to write notes in the margins. Now I use a yellow highliter. I'll then type up notes on a Word doc and keep them in pertinent folders for future use.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Nope. Can't do it. Expect for textbooks in school, I never write in books. Just feels wrong.

Ciara said...

I never write in books, sticky notes are fine, but I just feel like I'm doing something wrong. LOL

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Nope, I can't even bend the pages!

Sandra said...

Aaaaah, in margins! I get it!

Rayna M. Iyer said...

In my family, reading skipped a generation- both grandfathers were readers, neither parent is one. My maternal grandfather used to underline and very occasionally write, and my paternal grandfather (who had beautiful handwriting BTW) wrote comments.
For a few years, I was into writing my comments too, but then I stopped. To me a book is sacred, and I do not particularly like defacing it. But when I come across a line that is really really really good, I do underline it (maybe one every five or six books).

Love the word, Marginalia. Never heard of it till today.

The Old Silly said...

Off beat subject - love it! I have two old Bibles - one was my dad's - he was a minister - and one belonged to my Grandma. Both of them have copious marginalia in them, that I find quite fascinating to read, seeing thier understandings/reactions to certain passages of scripture.

When I find marginalia in a book I've loaned out from the library, though, I'm annoyed - I don't like being influenced by someone else's observation or whatever, and, like you, I was trained to NOT insert marginalia in any book that someone else might want to read after me.

Marvin D Wilson

Hart Johnson said...

Jane-I think I'm like you. I enjoy running across it in a used book now and then. In fact I've read a couple that had course notes for lit classes and they've added to my reading experience, but I don't do it myself. Seem sacreligious... MAN what those books Twin scribbled in must be worth! I'd love to see those.

Karen Walker said...

Ionly do it in nonfiction books. And I've finally learned to use bookmarks instead of folding down the corners. I hadn't even thought about not being able to write in the margins on ebooks. Hmmm.

DazyDayWriter said...

I take a few notes while reading -- margins work! Or I highlight passages I want to return to or mark the page, otherwise. Sometimes I find myself being too careful ... and think, wait, this IS my life, the time is NOW! Loved this, Jane.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Stephen, that sounds very organized – I’m jealous! )

Linda, Ciara and Alex, I’m surprised at the number of people who say they can’t write in books. I was thinking it was just a crazy thing I had.

Sandra, thanks for the laugh. I had to look up the word before I felt comfortable writing about it.

Rayna, there are times I go back looking for a really good line I remember reading. The process would be a lot quicker if I’d underline.

Marvin, I would think the notes from your father and grandmother make those special books even more special. I agree that no one should write in library books – that just seems rude.

Hart, once again we’re kindred spirits.

Karen, I usually carry extra bookmarks with me and when I see someone about to turn down a corner, I’ll hand them one.

Daisy, you're right—it’s not only your life, it’s your book and you should be able to do as you please with it.

Arlee Bird said...

I'm like you in that I like to keep my books in pristine condition. I have a few used books around that have markings in them, but I have not found them particularly interesting. Actually I don't pay much attention to them. Now, Twain's are a whole different story and probably quite interesting.

Tossing It Out

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

What a cool word!

I love annotating books in the margins. In fact, it's hard for me to NOT write in the margins. With the Kindle, I'm using the comment feature (not quite the same.)

Helen Ginger said...

I wrote in the margins of textbooks in college, but believe me, they weren't worth collecting.

Jayne said...

Great post, Jane. Marginalia - I wouldn't have thought its origins went that far back. I'm a highlighter (mostly for classroom purposes), but on a rare occasion, I'll make marginal notes. Ordinarily, I try not to mark up a book, because I feel guilty if I do. I just wasn't raised that way! ;)

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world