“The Marginal Obsession with Marginalia”
By Mark O’Connell
The New Yorker
Jan. 26, 2012
“In getting my books,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 1844, “I have always been solicitous of an ample margin; this is not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of penciling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” It’s a sentiment that a certain type of reader might be inclined to endorse by underlining, asterisking, or even scrawling “yes!” in the adjacent margin. Such readers feel that they aren’t really giving a book their full attention unless they’re hovering over it with a pencil, poised to underline or annotate at the slightest provocation. George Steiner memorably defined an intellectual as “quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.” Its admirable pithiness aside, the quip’s popularity probably has a lot to do with its egalitarian spirit: you don’t need to be able to give a detailed account of Heidegger’s ontology or have published a monograph on Proust to gain access to the club; you just have to keep a nicely sharpened HB in your hand as you read. (I tend to slot mine behind my right ear, carpenter style; I like to think this lends a somewhat rough-and-ready aspect to my appearance as I sit reading “Middlemarch” on the bus home.)
Marginalia have always been at the center of serious reading, but they have a place, too, at the margins of literary history. For a 2010 Talk of the Town piece, Ian Frazier wrote about a trip he took to the New York Public Library to view the annotated former possessions of various literary luminaries. He took particular note of a copy of Thoreau’s “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” which had been borrowed by Jack Kerouac from a local library in 1949, never to be returned. On page 227, Frazier noted a short sentence Kerouac had underlined in pencil, putting a “small, neat check mark beside it.” The sentence: “The traveler must be born again on the road.” In a copy of “Fifty-five Short Stories from The New Yorker, 1940-1950” once owned by Nabokov, he observed that the former Cornell literature professor had taken the trouble to give each story a grade, neatly penciled in beside its title in the table of contents. Only two stories in the anthology were awarded an A+ grade: J. D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and Nabokov’s own “Colette.” It’s not terribly surprising that this particular teacher was his own pet; those lower down the honor role might have taken comfort from bearing in mind that this was a guy who described the work of T. S. Eliot and Thomas Mann as, respectively, “second-rate” and “asinine.”
There has recently been a slight but noticeable escalation of interest in marginalia, partly because of the way in which the Internet has cultivated readers’ enthusiasm for discussion of their own reading practices and peculiarities, and partly because of a preëmptive nostalgia for the book as a tangible (and scrawlable) object at a time of increasing e-reader ubiquity. On the Open Letters Monthly site a couple of weeks ago, Lisa Peet wrote about the exhibition of Samuel Beckett’s original “Watt” manuscript at the Harry Ransom Center, in Texas. She took issue, sensibly, with the Center’s description of Beckett’s marginal doodlings as a “luminous secular relic,” insisting that his surprisingly accomplished cartoons “don’t need to be elevated to high art to be appreciated.” She declared her fascination with marginalia, with what she called “the voyeurism of seeing someone’s handwriting and doodles, even as I have to wonder—especially with posthumous archival collections—what the writers in question would have thought about having their stream-of-consciousness scribbles put up for such scrutiny.” On The Guardian’s books blog earlier this month, the former Faber & Faber editor-in-chief Robert McCrum was inspired, while remembering a piece he wrote in 1994 for The New Yorker about Graham Greene’s richly annotated personal library, to ask whether such scrawling was a sin for us mere mortals. He admitted that he himself was happy to write all over proof copies and paperbacks, but that he was generally loath to defile a nice hardback. He also posed (without trying to answer) the question “What happens to marginalia in the age of the Kindle?”
The New York Times Magazine critic at large Sam Anderson is much less circumspect than McCrum. For a while now, he has been a high-profile authority on the theory and practice of book defacement. In 2010, he contributed a much talked-about piece to The Millions called “A Year in Marginalia.” An ingenious variation on the site’s annual “Year in Reading” series, the post consisted of photos of jottings in books Anderson had read during that year. It’s almost certain that Anderson’s is the only copy of “Madame Bovary” to feature the word “Motherfuck!” neatly pencilled in the margin of the novel’s last page.
Earlier this month, Anderson reprised the “Year in Marginalia” idea for the Times (with added online multimedia content), and last year he published an interesting “Riff” on the topic. Here he characterized writing in books as a way “not just to passively read but to fully enter a text, to collaborate with it, to mingle with an author on some kind of primary textual plane.” He also laid out his fantasy about how e-books might lead to a new golden age in marginalia, whereby readers could share their own electronic jottings and read those of others:
This, it seems to me, would be something like a readerly utopia. It could even (if we want to get all grand and optimistic) turn out to be a Gutenberg-style revolution—not for writing, this time, but for reading. Book readers have never had a mechanism for massively and easily sharing their responses to a text with other readers, right inside the text itself.
This enthusiasm for an underpraised form of writing is infectious, and he makes a compelling case for marginalia-sharing as a means of giving readers’ observations more currency in the literary exchange. But I think he underestimates the extent to which most readers value annotations precisely because they are a private exchange between themselves and whatever book they happen to be talking back to. Personally, I get slightly edgy when people pick paperbacks off my shelves and flick through them; there’s something slightly mortifying about anybody else reading these earnest or facetious marginal interjections (“V. interesting, this!,” “Austen can really write!,” or “Sure, whatever, Wittgenstein…”)
The Kindle allows for electronic marginalia via the “notes” function, but it feels all wrong: something about having to call up a menu and type a note on the keypad, with its little stud-like plastic buttons, makes the whole process seem forced and contrived. Marginalia are supposed to be spontaneous and fluent. “Noting” something on a Kindle feels like e-mailing yourself a throwaway remark. There’s also something attractive about the contrast between the impersonal authority of the printed page and the idiosyncrasies of the reader’s handwriting. A book someone has written in is an oddly intimate object; like an item of clothing once worn by a person now passed away, it retains something of its former owner’s presence.
No doubt this partly explains why there was such widespread interest in the contents of David Foster Wallace’s archive when it was acquired by the Ransom Center, in 2010. There’s something deeply gratifying, after all, about seeing how one of the most important writers of his generation modified Cormac McCarthy’s author photo, in a copy of “Suttree,” with spectacles, mustache, and fangs. It’s not as though Wallace never clowned around in his actual writing, of course, but this particular kind of goofiness—spontaneous, distracted, childish—makes him seem especially vivid and present. It’s probably not quite what Steiner had in mind with his definition of the intellectual, but it gives us a glimpse of a Wallace we wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. And, at time of writing, Amazon has still not introduced a “deface author photo” option to the Kindle’s menu bar.