Monday, March 7, 2011

Mainstream Marginalia

For some reason, marginalia – that practice of annotating and noting and commenting along the margins of books – has been all over the place lately. Well, not the marginalia itself, but rather the discussion of it. Is the eBook killing it? Will the eBook in fact make it better and more shareable? What would our study of literature be without it? And so on. I'm not sure I've ever considered marginalia something to really get frantic about, but then, I've never been all that into it.

When I was doing my English degree and reading for class, I wrote in the margins. I underlined bits that I liked, used to brackets and shorthand to remind myself of sections I wanted to discuss in class, and used symbols to mark different places that various themes arose. At the time, this was very helpful when I was preparing for class or setting out to write an essay. Now, though, I drives me crazy. When I go back to read one of those stories, or look up a poem, all my notes and lines and stars distract me. It's as if I'm being interrupted by my old self, which prevents me from engaging in the work from a new perspective. Also, some of the marginal notes I made early on in my degree are incredibly embarrassing now because they point to such obvious things. Although, at the time I suppose it wasn't obvious and was instead exciting. Hmm.

Sam Anderson is a marginalia fiend (that's his commentary in the photo above) and in his New York Times article "What I Really Want is Someone Rolling Around in the Text," he takes the exact opposite stance to the one I've put forward above. He loves marginalia, and for him, it heightens the reading of a text rather than disturbing it. Anderson actually hopes the eBook makes marginalia more prevalent. Imagine the possibilities, he writes, if there was a function that allowed you to share your marginalia. Or, better yet, to read what famous people wrote in the margins of their books. 

I will concede that if I could read Ernest Hemingway's or Roald Dahl's or Margaret Atwood's marginalia, I would be kind of into that. In this sense, the marginal notes offer insight into what they were thinking while reading, and might be more interesting than the actual writing the notes are arranged around. Typically, I like to decide for myself what's important on a page. Specifically, if I see marginal notes and stars before I've read the work, it skews how I read it, because I find myself reading starred or underlined sections differently, wondering to myself "Why did they like this bit so much?" instead of taking it in for what it is.

Maybe the best way around this is an optional eBook button, or, for those of us who still read words printed on paper, a little warning note on the title page stating clearly "Spoilers ahead: Beware Marginalia."

Image from Sam Anderson's piece "A Year in Marginalia" from The Millions. The book he wrote in? Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red.

1 comment:

  1. I can't offer Ernest Hemingway's or Roald Dahl's or Margaret Atwood's marginalia, but I can offer David Markson's:


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