Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Marginalia - love it or hate it

Defined on Wikipedia as 'The scribbles, comments and illuminations in the margin of a book,' you come across this practice everywhere. Marginalia is generally handwritten by readers who believe they have something to add to an author's words, or simply wish to remember them. For such a simple habit, I was amazed by the polarising opinions expressed by the general public in a poll I saw.

I'll get the negative out of the way first. Some people seemed to react as if they were being asked about murder. Since some book lovers consider their books to be living friends, maybe that makes sense. Others tend to treat it like graffiti. Vandals who may consider themselves artists deface public property, in the same way that disrespectful or know-it-all readers deface the pages of books. Since some profanity and coarse language is probably bound to make it into this sort of writing at times, they may have a point. However, I believe that if we're willing to think outside the square (and I realise that's a sort of pun), there's lots of good to be said about marginalia.

For a start, old books with marginalia may retain something of their former owners' presence, giving you a buzz, or even a bit of insight when you come across it. In Lucy Maud Montgomery's 'The Golden Road', the Story Girl receives a Christmas present from the Awkward Man. (Montgomery's tendency to give people labels as names really comes out in this book.) It turns out to be an old book with a great many marks on its pages. The Story Girl's pretty and worldly cousin, Felicity, accuses the Awkward Man of being cheap, and the Story Girl quickly sets her straight, saying she'd rather have her friend's marginalia than a dozen brand new books. She used different words, but that's the gist of it.

It's more likely remarks scribbled down as marginalia will be honest, heartfelt reflections which might benefit others, otherwise the person who wrote them wouldn't bother. For the same reason, they are often witty, interesting and well worth adding. Spontaneous and fluent thoughts are often the best, and they are what we so often get with marginalia.

If you can call it a hobby, it's a good, cheap one. All you need is a nice sharp lead pencil. Personally, I think this is stretching it a bit, and wouldn't recommend that we go jotting margin notes all over library books, calling it our hobby. In fact, if you think a book is worth lots of marginalia, you might as well get a writing pad, jot it all into a longer article and make it a book review.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote, 'In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin ... for the facility it affords me of pencilling in suggested thoughts, agreements, or brief critical comments in general.' If I came across that in an actual book, I'd be tempted to underline it and write a margin note saying, 'Yes, I agree!'

Perhaps the saddest bit of marginalia, as mathematicians would surely agree, was written by Pierre de Fermat in a text book entitled 'Arithmetica'. He wrote, 'I have discovered a truly marvellous proof which this margin is too narrow to contain.' And Fermat's Last Theorem remained unproven by fellow mathematicians for another three hundred years.

To prove that this practice shouldn't be marginalised (hey, another pun), I'll mention three novels, including one of mine, in which a bit of marginalia turns out to be integral to the plot.

1) The Kitchen Daughter, by Jael McHenry
The Kitchen Daughter One of the main characters, David, jots a little margin note in the heroine, Ginny's, cookbook. It's simply that she should add a pinch of ancho powder to her hot chocolate to improve the flavour, but the effect is devastating. You have to read it. My review is here.

2) Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Harry Potter, #6) In this sixth book in the series, Harry finds himself in accidental possession of a second hand Potions text book. The former owner had filled it with all sorts helpful additions, jottings and advice. In the short term, this marginalia helped Harry shoot to the top of the class in Potions. Only later does he learn the cost of owning the Half Blood Prince's book.

3) A Design of Gold, by Paula Vince
A Design of Gold I wrote this novel in 2009, long before I'd heard the term, marginalia. While planning this blog post, I was really pleased to remember this, as you can imagine. My characters, Piers and Casey, discover a book owned by their son, Jerome, in which he has scribbled all sorts of margin notes, giving them vital clues about how troubled he has been in his mind, and why. 'A Design of Gold' contains a lot about the enormous impact a random book may have on the life of the individual who happens to find it. I'd love it if you'd read that one too.

I'm sure there are many other novels, such as mystery stories, in which marginalia features strongly. If you can think of any, please let me know in the comments. I'd also love to hear any interesting true stories about marginalia you might have come across, not to mention your own feelings about the subject.


  1. I don't do it myself, but both my father and my husband are habitual margin noters. If I read a book they've read, I'll definitely be able to tell what they thought of it!

    1. Hi Lynne,
      If you read a book that both your men have had hold of before you, it must be an interesting time. I'm like you and don't do it very often, but I enjoy coming across other people's.

  2. Interesting post Paula. I usually don't mark novels, but I usually underline nonfiction books, especially if it's something I'm studying or using for research. I once had a self-help book in which I'd underlined a lot of material. I lent it to a friend who I thought might find it helpful and she did. I actually went and bought a copy for her, but when I gave it to her, she hesitated. I asked her what was wrong and she thanked me for the book, but asked if I would mind if she continued reading the one I'd underlined. She said it helped her to know that someone else had been there before her :)

    I quite like it if I pick up an old second-hand book and there are a few scribbles in the margins. As you said, it does give you an insight into the former owner. However, I don't like it if there are so many marks and underlines that it affects your reading of it.

    1. Hi Nola,
      I think I would have been like your friend, and asked to keep the original. I enjoy coming across other people's thought this way, most times. Not long ago, I had a library book in which a previous reader thought she knew better than the author and kept scribbling down critical comments. That wasn't very much fun and I got sick of it pretty quickly.