Atlas of Interest: On the Hidden Life of Marginalia

By posted at 6:00 am on November 17, 2015 4

“We have all seized the white perimeter as our own,” wrote Billy Collins in “Marginalia.” (When I first read the poem, I dutifully scored the passage with a checkmark in my copy of Picnic, Lightning — surely a meta-marginal inscription if there ever was one.) Collins’s words, jubilant, even triumphal, may strike the seasoned marginalist as overly dramatic, if not absurd; however, lest we forget, the tyranny of “the white perimeter” is not easily repealed in those whom it has been cultivated. Our culture is less than forbearing in matters of extra-textual scribbling, its very presence analogous to vandalism or, perhaps worse, the intellectual’s vague sedition; our training, therefore, begins early. For a child overly fond of the library, the rituals of card and stamp and due date quickly (and, for some, permanently) accord the book a kind of material sanctity: to write in one would be akin to relieving oneself in the narthex. So we may forgive Collins his exuberance in conquering the margins (what he elsewhere refers to, quite beautifully, as having “planted an impression along the verge”); after all, when one has finally and irrevocably transgressed — say, a furtively penned “IRONY” in a battered copy of Oscar Wilde as a teenager — the act of reading opens like a paper flower dropped in water. The text, thus defaced, provoked, enriched, no longer appears as chantry but rather something approaching a bordello, a blackboard, a battleground.

covercoverWhat do we know of the hidden life of this richly historical, eminently malleable literary practice? As we continue to inundate our texts with scratches, exes, pentagrams, aggressively enthusiastic exclamations, stains, imprints, and doodles, a parallel text, possessed of its own narrative thrust, begins to emerge. What are the stakes of this reading record that is somehow neither public nor private, but rather limbic, brazenly interstitial, a farrago of heiroglyphs, incantations, surfeits, and asides? Is marginalia, finally, truly marginal?

Mortimer J. Adler, in his seminal How to Read a Book, lays out the purview of marginalia thusly:

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

There is much wisdom here, as in much of Adler, though that last sentence feels incomplete to me. If marginalia helps the reader “remember the thoughts of the author,” a far more important function, I think, is that it helps the reader remember her own resolves, her reactions, her quibbles and queries. It is a flash of insight or anger, ossified, trapped in literary amber where it can be retrieved for a later reckoning.

covercoverA book, after all, is a form of confrontation, and one of the most compelling motivators behind marginalia is a kind of engaged hostility. This quarrelsome brand of literary corrective, whether a byproduct of zealous critical engagement or the basest jealousy, is both compulsively readable and often very funny. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose collected marginalia runs to six volumes, took such a disliking to Robert Southey’s Joan of Arc that he created a kind of abusive shorthand to deploy at will in the guilty margins: the New York Public Library, which owns the Berg Collection of which this text is a part, lists “J” (a “discordant jingle of sound”), “L.M.” (“ludicrous metaphor”), and “S.E.” (“Southey’s English,” an idiom which, apparently, exasperated Coleridge), among a great many others. Similarly adversarial, though more judicious in the levying, was David Markson, whose light checkmarks and fragmented erudition belied a forcible literary temper. Next to a particular passage in Don DeLillo’s Mao II — “That the withheld work of art is the only eloquence left” — the late novelist wrote, rather eloquently it must be said, “Bullshit.”

The margins, too, are often used to democratize a reader’s engagement with the text, to level the playing field as it were so that the act of reading becomes a form of robust conversation, something vigorous that approaches an act of interrogation. David Foster Wallace’s annotated books, in which his slanting words are corralled into labyrinthine honeycombs of red-penned shapes, are a fine example of this readerly dynamism. His blooming bubbles of thought, copious to the point of claustrophobia, can have the not unpleasant effect of literary vertigo: who is writing in whose margins here? Which is text and which is commentary? Wallace, of course, employs what is merely an outsized mode of what, I think, most readers use the margins for: that is, a piercing of the veil, a textual cohabitation in which lulling passivity is shed. No longer content with mere perusal, we become enabled participants, capable and correcting, or else fierce and fiery lovers, leaving notes we hope the author — or some distant reader — will linger over.

And herein we stumble upon one of the most intimate and empathetic dimensions of marginalia: that it is often a form of failed privacy. When we mark our books, we affix a particular meaning to a text-in-time, one meant for, at the very least, a temporally inaccessible self — though in my own reading, the intended recipient is often a figment of literary fantasy. I converse with the dead, with strangers who may own this book in the far flung future on whom I wish to make a striking impression. Or, admittedly discomfiting, I sometimes aim to astound myself 10 years hence, an eerie longing for the adoration of my own eyes grown older. I do not do these things consciously (or, at least, not always); rather, it would appear that in my own marginalia, desire is an animating principle, a need to relate — or to prove something — to figures not living, not present, not born.

Alternately, who hasn’t succumbed to the delicious voyeurism of a stranger’s scrawlings? In following along with the previous reader’s checks and brackets, their snarks and synopses, their tangents and revelations, we read a text doubly, illumined by the spectral presence of past engagement. Used bookstores are graveyards of casual epiphanies, awaiting the resurrective animism of fresh consciousness. And whether we are of like mind with the erstwhile owner or we find ourselves adversaries in interpretation, it is a literary haunting the seductive power of which depends on the worth of its abandoned concealments.

And, too, how confidently we build physical profiles and intellectual dossiers based solely on these laconic remnants. Outstripping obscurity, their marks remain generative, capable of a surprisingly rich composition. A character materializes before us: spotted scalp, natty loafers. The banalities of life discoloring the page — a spot of coffee, an egg salad stain — achieve an eloquence difficult to explain. We scorn their misspelled words. We admire their lyrical wit. We marvel at the decades-old Sear’s coupon doubled over in the book’s yellowed center. We wince where pens ran dry, a familiar frustration in the empty spirals pressed against the page; a new color (we pronounce judgment on their choice) begins its work. More present, more articulate ghosts we will not find.

coverIf, as James Wood has it in The Broken Estate, “every book is its own reality and its own realism,” marginalia grants us a footpath back to our reality. It renders the passage fluid between book and life, a floodlit corridor through which we might transport and retain our hard-won insights. These humble marks are the seams and scars borne in the service of reading, the places wherein we rushed heedlessly toward a ripple, an intuited glimmer. Taken together, they comprise a kind of atlas of interest, a map of literature’s ability to quicken the opaque substance of the reading mind. Bequeathing our words, we bequeath ourselves: there, lit up suddenly, a life inscribed.

Image Credit: Flickr/romana klee.

Share this article

More from the Millions

4 Responses to “Atlas of Interest: On the Hidden Life of Marginalia”

  1. Max Weismann
    at 2:01 pm on November 17, 2015


    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

  2. Maureen Murphy/Moe Murph
    at 11:37 am on November 25, 2015

    “Marginalia” is a theme in a newly-produced short opera, part of an upcoming program at the Kennedy Center in my hometown of Washington DC (Sold out. Boo!).

    Quite imaginative. Below is used in this comment for educational purposes only, and because its just too tempting to pass by…!

    American Opera Initiative: Three 20-Minute Operas

    [Alexandra. Music by David Clay Mettens, libretto by Joshua McGuire.

    “As a young widow tries to return a library book stolen by her deceased husband, she realizes it is the first link in a chain of secret messages from another time. With the library closing around her, she is forced to choose between her own complex history with the book and an uncertain future.”


  3. Maureen Murphy/Moe Murph
    at 11:47 am on November 25, 2015

    One more musing on marginalia.

    I can’t say 100%, but I get the impression the short opera I mention above deals with marginalia that is less a dialog with the book and its author, and more a means of communications between two readers of the book in illicit relationship.

    In comparison, I once picked up for a buck or two a collection of essays by a former food columnist, and the marginalia were a hilarious addition to my reading. I think the marginalia-ist was living in a small town in Kentucky. Each time the writer suggested anything vaguely foodie-esque, he or she would erupt in Scribbles of Fury!

    My favorite (paraphrased): “Does this spoiled Californian have ANY idea what it’s like to live in a small town where store-boughten bread is dry as cotton? Lord Above! Harumph!”

  4. Pixel Picks. XI | The Oosterbook
    at 10:17 pm on February 3, 2016

    […] curious white space surrounding text: It is there to contain our words, to frame the page. Margins need to be given the kudos they […]

Post a Response

Comments with unrelated links will be deleted. If you'd like to reach our readers, consider buying an advertisement instead.

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments that do not add to the conversation will be deleted at our discretion.