Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Marginalia! It sounds like a bunch of one-celled organisms with hairs on the edges slithering around on a glass slide. But it means writing in the margins of books.

I love writing in books, and I love finding and reading marginalia in books! As this article in the New York Times points out, some of that went by the wayside when teachers told us not to write in our books (raises fees on book rental at school, etc.), and writing in the margins might be a habit lost forever with the new surge of e-readers. 

On the other hand, college writing programs have been using electronic notation systems for a several years, so I’m sure, as they say now, there will be “an app” for e-book notation soon enough.

But, yes, it’s great to find that wonderful note in the margin by a famous writer!

Or that sweet anonymous note by a previous reader!

Or that mass of underlining, circling, stars and symbols, and words-followed-by-definitions…all evidence of the close reader, the engaged reader!

Yes, that will be harder to do and harder to find with the new e-reading trends.

But, in Fat Tuesday fullness of life mode, I confess that a bunch of my books are full of marginalia.

I re-learned messy marginalia when I started discussing books with the “shared inquiry” method at a Great Books home salon and the public event called Great Books Chicago some years ago.  It is so much easier to find the page with the quotation you need if you have highlighted or underlined it, written a star in the margin next to it, and dog-eared that dogarned page.

(Good to do this with Dover Thrift or Penguin paperback editions.  Not so good to do with first edition, first printings!)

I often fill the margins with questions, too. And then ask them of my fellow readers!

Yes, you might call me an engaged reader.

Some people are reading not to engage but to escape. They might not want to take notes, make stars, or write questions.  E-reading & the lack of marginalia won’t be a problem at all for them!

And that’s a circling around to the what-are-you-reading-and-why project I began a little over a year ago. I am still reading to learn how to live in the world.

It’s working! I’m still here, still reading.

Now check out this Speak Your Design blog post about marginalia as book graffiti!

The fabulous green “Yes” marginalia image comes from NewYorkette! 

And thanks to the Christian Science Monitor for the e coli...


Kim said...

If I were reading this in a book (instead of a blog) I would make a note in the margin about the juxtaposition of Christian Science and e coli. I use marginalia a lot in non-fiction, not so much in fiction except to note passages I find beautifully written.

Sandy Longhorn said...

I am addicted to marginalia, both my own and that of others. I was actually taught to annotate in high school when we each had to buy a novel a year for English. Huck Finn and A Tale of Two Cities showed me the way. God bless a good teacher!

I do think that e-readers will catch up with this soon. All it takes is a stylus and some programming. Still, I don't have an e-reader, so I'll stick to the pen. Woot!

Anonymous said...

I saw that article! I liked Mark Twain's snarky comments.

Kindle lets you make notes and bookmarks, but in my experience these can be hard to navigate if you make more than a few. There's also a feature that lets you see what other readers have highlighted (no thanks), and one that lets you share your notes via Twitter and Facebook.

I tried this out when I was reviewing a friend's novel. Mostly she just wanted a reader perspective of her whole book before she started sending it out to agents, but I had her manuscript on my Kindle and thought I'd try sending her line comments via Facebook. So I set up a FB page with her as my only friend.

It worked okay for awhile, but then somebody at either FB or Amazon decided I was sending too many messages, and I (or more accurately my Kindle) got banned from my own FB page. It was amusing to me to be suspected of spamming by Kindle!

Kelli Russell Agodon - Book of Kells said...

Enjoyed this! I too love finding marginalia - others and my own from books I read so long ago. It keeps me in touch with past selves and what they thought.

seana graham said...

One of the big huffs over Kindle occurred when they pulled a book entirely from the 'cloud', due to an author's demand (talk about your instant recall!) and then had to replace it at the outcry of the public. I remember reading about one reader's fury at discovering that the replaced copy was minus all the notes and bookmarks he had attached.

I never write in books, probably because I at least used to do so much library reading, but you persuade me to rethink this.

Kathleen said...

Oooh, marginalia sucked into and out of the cloud. Pretty nuclear.

Some people do it with a jillion post-its, Seana.

Collagemama said...

Nebraska author Mari Sandoz did not have a Kindle or Post-it notes. She was a very engaged reader, and the books of her personal library were filled with marginalia, clippings, reviews, letters and other ephemera. I got to help catalog the Sandoz material for the university library's special collections in 1978. It was fascinating looking at books through the eyes of a serious reader, writer, and researcher by way of her marginalia.

ted tingley said...

I was brainwashed many years ago that marginalia was a no no. It,s probably good thing since most of what I read is borrowed from the library. I do made notes in the margins but primarily on what I write myself.
On occasion I slip up. One slip up was when I
was trying to help the author of the book I was reading describe what Jesus's girl friend
looked like.

Kathleen said...

In both cases here--CollageMama & Ted--I would love to read that marginalia!

Ellen said...

I used this a LOT when I was in therapy. Notes to myself usually, sometimes what I thought someone else should be doing. HA HA HA

I do it a lot in my bible. Here it is mainly to help me find a scripture I like.