I must begin with a shoutout to Books with a Past, whose email newsletter alerted me to the existence of an entire website devoted to marginalia!
The article they linked to, Edgar Allan Poe on the Joy of Marginalia and What Handwriting Reveals about Character, quotes Poe arguing that marginalia is a uniquely free and authentic form of writing, on the grounds that, when writing in a book, unlike every other form of writing, you are writing only for yourself: in dialogue with the author and also with yourself, working out ideas and arguments. This made me wonder whether Gretchen MacCulloch, author of the (absolutely delightful) book Because Internet, would categorize marginalia as formal writing (like books), informal writing (like postcards), or something else entirely.
Perhaps the genre depends on whether the marginalia is pre- or post-printing press: while today’s marginalia are rarely seen by anyone but the author (though my favorite part of buying used books is seeing what the previous owner wrote in the margins!), at least some of the medieval marginalia by scribes and copyists often seems to be explicitly directed to subsequent readers, sometimes asking for prayers for the soul of copyist.
I learned to write in books shortly before I started my masters in theology. It was not my idea! But when I asked the advice of the women in my small email group what I should do to prepare, Ann O. gave me two pieces of advice: a) read “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler, and b) learn to write in my books. I was horrified by both suggestions (after all, I’ve been reading books since I was five!), but I eventually agreed a) to read the book, and b) to try writing in it — figuring that since I was unenthusiastic about the book, it wouldn’t bother me as much to ruin that book!
Well, it didn’t take long before I got the point that writing in the margins is a way of arguing with the author, which made me much more enthusiastic about the whole thing. (And the book itself was not horrible, especially for someone coming to theology from a science background: it turns out you actually do need to read this stuff differently. Who knew?) I have also found it helpful over the years to diagram in my books, circling key concepts with annotated arrows explaining the relationships and so on. This is something you can’t (yet?) do on a Kindle, which is why if I want to really engage with a book, I need to own a hardcopy. (Although I think I’ve heard there are newer tablet programs that allow this sort of thing with PDFs…? If you’ve used such a thing successfully, I’d love to hear about it.)
I wonder if quote-tweets, in which one tweets a comment above someone else’s tweet, could be considered a form of marginalia, too. What do you think?
PS – it’s not too late to sign up for the free February series on Interfaith Perspectives on Economic Justice — let me know if you do!
“Because Internet” is a lot of fun.