Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books

H.J. Jackson

celia suggested this book to me a while back when i found someone’s notes in one story of a Mavis Gallant book. it is the first book to look at the history and argue for the value of writing in books.

marking books in any way is a practice largely unaccepted for most of the books i read, since i rely so much on the library. extensive annotation (not just highlighting passages, but writing extensively in books) used to be taught as part of standard education, but once textbooks started being shared over years of students, it was no longer possible. it’s interesting how present marginalia used to be and that there are a few people who were somewhat famous for their marginalia alone. S.T. Coleridge was not a professional writer, like most of the annotators whose books are valued today, but friends would ask him to mark their books and eventually people who didn’t know him would send him books with hopes of receiving it back with his notes.

Jackson is obviously heavily biased, but voices sound reason about the value of marginalia through case studies that show the amount of information we can glean about specific people and the culture of the time they lived in and even the response contemporary readers had to the books they read. her focus is on english-language books from 1700 to 2000, and she shows the evolution of marginalia through the changing landscape of publishing. it’s interesting how prevalent annotation was in the mid-1800s, when books started to become a little easier to obtain for more than just upper-class, educated people (though the access was still limited). reading became a very social pastime, and friends would annotate books for each other. Jackson highlights one marked book from a man to his fiancée, which is an alternate version of a love letter, a form of courtship in a sense.

it seems quite remarkable now that i found annotations in the Gallant story, as fiction is far less commonly marked — Jackson theorizes that a lot of the desire to interact with texts is a result of disagreeing with points stated as fact or to clarify mistakes. and indeed, it cracked me up to reach p. 28 and find a note pencilled in the margin:

Marginalia in Marginalia