Marginalia (or apostils) are marks made in the margins of a book or other document. They may be scribbles, comments, glosses (annotations), critiques, doodles, or illuminations.
Fermat’s last theorem is the most famous mathematical marginal note.
The first recorded use of the word marginalia is in 1819 in Blackwood’s Magazine.
Voltaire composed in book margins while in prison.
Sir Walter Raleigh wrote a personal statement in margins just before his execution.
Beginning in the 1990s, attempts have been made to design and market e-book devices permitting a limited form of marginalia.
Billy Collins has poem titled “Marginalia” that begins:
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.
Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
‘Nonsense.’ ‘Please! ‘ ‘HA! ! ‘ –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote ‘Don’t be a ninny’
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.
Edgar Allan Poe titled some of his reflections and fragmentary material “Marginalia.”
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.
Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
‘Absolutely,’ they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
‘Yes.’ ‘Bull’s-eye.’ ‘My man! ‘
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.
I made plenty of notes in my college books. I tried not to mark up those expensive textbooks so that their value didn’t drop (though some of my friends liked the “annotated” books they bought used). But I heavily wrote in the margins of the novels and poetry collections I used in my English classes, and I still have most of them today.
Five volumes of Samuel T. Coleridge’s marginalia have been published.
Some famous marginalia were serious works, or drafts thereof, and were written in margins due to scarcity and expense of paper. Emily Dickinson wrote poems on scraps of paper, used envelopes and such.
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.
Reading and analyzing marginalia can be a scholarly pursuit, especially the marginalia of famous authors. Herman Melville is one of my soulmates and there is a website, Melville’s Marginalia Online, devoted to the marginalia in books owned and borrowed by him from 1819-1891.
The old books are scanned and then filtered and sharpened in Adobe Photoshop in a digital literary archaeology. Scholars study his notes in copies of books about whales. That seems obvious. less obvious are notes on themes that emerge not only in Moby-Dick, but in his other books, stories and poems.
Melville writes in White Jacket:
The horn seemed the mark of a curse for some mysterious sin, conceived and committed before the spirit had entered the flesh. Yet that sin seemed something imposed, and not voluntarily sought; some sin growing out of the heartless necessities of the predestination of things; some sin under which the sinner sank in sinless woe.
Studying his marginalia, especially in a copy of Dante’s Inferno, we see him being interested in the way impulsive, unplanned, unpremeditated acts could be seen as sins. He marks up passages about damnation and free will.
We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.
Some marginalia is our way of saying that we didn’t just read the words, but we thought about them. We paused, considered a line, and made a note of our own.
Marginalia is an older practice than even printed books. The “scholia” on classical manuscripts are the earliest known form of marginalia. We have evidence of margin notes and even illustrations in beautiful old illuminated manuscripts.
Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.
Some say that reading some authors along with the marginalia of another author is the best way to read.
And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.
My favorite marginalia is not very scholarly. Egocentrically, I now quite enjoy reading my own marginalia in books I read in my student days.
I even wrote margin notes in my own journals. I made notes in the journals from my pre-teen and teen years many years later noting the “lies” I had written there. I think that I imagined it I wrote it down, it would be true.
And I love it when I look in someone else’s book and find their notes. This is especially true when I buy used books, which I often do. Some notes are like those Collins mocks – lightweight, silly, literary graffiti. But some are thoughtful, and I like reading them and trying to figure something about the previous owner.
Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page
A few 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.’
All this is an elaborate introduction to what inspired this post. I bought a used copy of the I Ching and found inside of it a series of Post-It notes. I consider them a modern day marginalia. Margin notes from someone who doesn’t feel comfortable writing in the margins of a book.
I read them and thought about who she (yes, I imagined it is a woman) was when she was writing the notes.
She asks this Book of Changes, this ancient Chinese divination text, “What is my true calling?” A very big question.
Something bad had happened to her. “I what ways can I go about healing myself in ways I have not covered. What is my missing link and how can I find it?”
She tosses the coins, heads and tails, and looks for the answers. I feel sorry for her. I want the book to give her answers, or at least make her believe there are answers.
“How can I reclaim my sparkle and presence,” she asked. I didn’t look up the answers she was given.
She sold the book. Either she got her answers, or gave up on finding them in a book. She left her marginalia, these bits of her life and searching, for me to find.
I did my own searching. I didn’t find the answers, or rather, I didn’t find the answers I wanted to find. I also sold the book. I removed her notes. I think each of us should start our search with a clean page.