Marginalia & Why You Should "Ruin" Your Books

Before the invention of the printing press, and many, many lifetimes before the pdf, people copied books by hand. It was not only a time-consuming process but the materials and labour required were expensive. So much so that, in some instances, just one book could set you back the cost of a house.

Understandably then, people viewed books as invaluable long-term investments. They were vessels of wealth, beauty, and knowledge they expected to hand down to their children and their children's children.

Considering their price, you might think these things were locked away in pristine condition, never to be touched. But quite the opposite is true.

Readers commonly jotted down notes in the margins to further the understanding for future generations - a form of intergenerational communication, if you will. This act of writing in these books, known as marginalia, was a practice carried on from how monks once wrote over scripture. And people did not see this as an act that devalued these pricey tomes. On the contrary, it made them invaluable.

Imagine for a moment if someone in your family handed you down such a thing. The favourite book of your great-grandfather or grandmother scrawled with their thoughts and ideas on a work of literature. Wouldn't that be something entirely priceless? Or would we look upon our forefathers' words and think they had ruined a perfectly good book?

The era of physical books equaling real-estate value is, for the most part, deeply buried in ancient history. But marginalia, an act seen as sacrilegious by some, should be of no less value to us now. And the words, scribbles and lines drawn in the white space of paperbacks don't need to be ancient to matter. Indeed, they might well be of the most value when they're our own

Of course, most of us have had at least some experience of partaking in marginalia, even if only in school texts. A right of passage caught humorously by the poet Billy Collins in the aptly titled 'Marginalia:'

"Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls' Metaphor next to a stanza of Eliot's
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward."
- From Marginalia by Billy Collins

Beyond the college gates, the creative writer has remained one of the most steadfast advocates for dirtying books. And it's worth mentioning that writers such as Mark Twain, David Foster Wallace and Sylvia Plath were all frequent annotators. In some cases, their marginalia has become subject to as much analysis as the original works they doodled within. In other cases, the marginalia they've left us behind has revealed secrets regarding the inspiration behind their own published works. Take, for instance, Sylvia Plath's writing 'L'Ennui,' the title of her then-future poem, in her copy of The Great Gatsby.

Sylvia Plath's annotated copy of The Great Gatsby

On a more comical note, Mark Twain's annotations remind us that marginalia isn't all about praise, inspiration and uncovering symbols and subtext. Instead, it can be the place to unload your harshest criticisms regarding a text and its author. Such as the kind Twain felt towards Landon D. Melville's Saratoga, which he labelled as the "droolings of an idiot" by a "little minded person."

The thoughts of famous writers aside, marginalia shouldn't be confined to those who could learn a technique or two from reading carefully. And the reasons to indulge in the joyful "ruining" of books are many. Perhaps the greatest is that marginalia enforces us to be engaged readers.

Most of the media we consume today, we do so passively. Watching a film or listening to a song requires little to no effort or input on our part. All we have to do is show up, and the experience happens to us until it's over or we leave. Of course, we can become more engaged with the media, but such is our choice.

Reading is fundamentally different. The story within a novel and the lesson in the textbook only occurs if we put in the effort. It is, at its heart, a joint effort between author and reader:

"Reading is not as passive as hearing or viewing. It's an act: you do it. You read at your pace, your own speed, not the ceaseless, incoherent, gabbling, shout rush of the media. You take in what you can and want to take in, not what they shove at you fast and hard and loud in order to overwhelm and control you. Reading a story, you may be told something, but you're not being sold anything. And though you're usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind. You aren't being brainwashed or co-opted or used; you've joined in an act of the imagination." - Ursula K Le Guin in "Words Are My Matter"

With this in mind, however, we may venture that, just as most writing isn't created equal, most reading isn't equal either. After all, most of us can relate to the feeling of putting down a book and realising we've forgotten most of its contents only weeks later. And so if we want to be on equal footing with this time and space-defying communication, we shouldn't just be listening. Instead, we should be "talking back".

When we do this, we not only begin to understand and remember the texts better but also better understand ourselves. We learn what kind of passages thrill or delight us, what characters we love or hate, what kind of themes we most relate to, and what narratives we find disagreeable.

Marginalia doesn't just start a conversation between the author and ourselves either. But it also forms one between ourselves and our future selves when we return to the book later to reread it.

Good literature rarely reveals all of its hidden depths the first time you read it, nor will you ever read it with the same pair of eyes. After all, an inevitable part of life is that our perspectives change as we live through new experiences (and read more books). And marginalia is as good a journaling method as any for capturing these differing perspectives and ideas we employ at different stages of our life.

Finally, marginalia also slows us down. And though that may seem like a negative in an age where blitzing through as many books as possible is the goal, it can be a powerful tool. Having a pencil (or pen) in hand ready to write can give us cause to really think about the passages we're reading. And even if the page is left clean of marks, we can turn it knowing full well what it did or didn't mean to us.

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Written by Mike Grindle

Published on 7th November, 2022

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Please note that quotations and images are not included in this license.

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