Most of us have written in the margins of books, especially in our own textbooks when cramming for an exam or writing a paper, but how many of us write notes in expensive hardcovers that we treasure? These days writing inside books is heavily discouraged and frowned upon, but it was once a common practice, one that has pleased many a historian and bibliophile. Imagine coming across a dusty old book at a yard sale and finding the notes and scribblings of a famous person inside of it. Imagine the joy you would feel to come across such a connection!
Marginalia, or the practice of writing in books, has a rich literary tradition. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s friends lent their books to him on purpose hoping that he would write along their margins. Chances were that he did, for he was a prolific margin writer. Mark Twain often made comments, giving his opinions or hotly debating with the book’s author. Other practitioners of margin writing were William Blake, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Jefferson. Even Jane Austen joined this select group, scribbling in her copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s book about her favorite poet, William Cowper (pronounced Cooper.)
In Persuasions Online, Jane Austen scholar Edith Lank writes about her copy of the two-volume Lord Barbourne edition of Jane Austen’s letters, which she found at a sale. This books is filled with
detailed genealogies, marginal comments, explanations and family gossip…The first were Fanny Caroline Lefroy and her sister Mrs. Louisa Lefroy Bellas, both daughters of Jane Austen’s neice (sic) Anna Austen Lefroy. The sisters annotated the book in careful nineteenth-century script and printing.” - List of Annotations in the Bellas Copy of Lord Brabourne’s Letters of Jane Austen
Thomas Jefferson’s scribblings were as elegant and refined as his mind. He sold his book collection to the Library of Congress in 1815, and kept a personal collection of books that he built upon until his death. Those books revealed that he often corrected typographical errors.
Marginal scribblings provided a window into the minds of its writers, for they offered an insight into what they thought and revealed personal aspects of their characters. My scribblings in college texts were boring, for they merely summarized the most important points I needed to recall. I rarely left a personal thought in the margins or wrote inside my own books, although I dog eared favorite passages or left scraps of paper between pages that I wanted to reread.
The author of an article in the New York Times feared that the advent of eBooks would end the art of marginalia, but the following passage partially assuages that fear. I say partially because part of the charm of marginalia is to see the author’s hand and his/her choice of writing implement, which is something Kindle does not yet offer (who knows what the future will hold?):
When I received a Kindle as a gift earlier this year, my habits of marginalia soared to new heights. It became extremely easy to highlight passages and add notes, which are then situated in the text I’m reading but also pulled together into my Kindle account on Amazon where I can, for instance, share them with students in a course, fellow members of a book discussion group, family, and friends…even, in theory, with enemies. I’ll rebut and rebuke them with my rapier marginalia. It’s even possible to add a marginal note on a Kindle and then tweet it.-The margins of Marginalia; Books From Thomas Jefferson’s Personal Library Rediscovered
Do you write inside books? What’s your opinion about about this literary tradition? And do you think Kindle will rekindle it?
More on the Topic
- Thomas Jefferson
- JASNA marginalia: List of Annotations in the Bellas copy of Lord Brabourne’s Letters of Jane Austen
- Isaac Newton’s marginalia
- Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in the Margin: New York Times
- Trove of Thomas Jefferson Books Discovered
- Poem about Marginalia
- Marginalia: Edgar Allen Poe