Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Great Debate: Marginalia

One reason I like to buy books I'm sure I'll like and possibly re-read is that I can write in the margins--I generally scribble reflections, literary sources, possible allusions. I underline on-going themes so I can flip through the book and see how the author manipulates those themes throughout the story.

Little did I know that there is an "official" term for this: marginalia. It is also used to refer to medieval scribblings and pictures in books and was coined by Samuel Coleridge in the 19th century. Despite the impressive-sounding name, however, marginalia is highly controversial. While there are academics who specialize in marginalia, tracing readers' reactions to works throughout the centuries, there also seem to be academics who specialize in mocking those who specialize in marginalia.

In addition, there is a difference between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century marginalia and 21st-century marginalia. Ask anyone who has ever bought a used textbook from a university--they are generally wrapped in an environmentally-lethal plastic wrap to prevent the student from flipping through them to see how much writing and/or highlighting a particular book may contain, thus making the purchase of used books an often-disappointing crap shoot. The more highlighting or notes, the less thrilled the student. People generally want to be the first to write in their books, if they want to at all.

For example, take a look at the debate on this blog--both sides of the argument (to write or not to write in books) are extremely passionate about their views. Those who believe that writing in books is heretical accuse those who do so of being short-sighted and selfish, not thinking of those who might own the book in the future. While in some ways I can see where this argument is coming from (especially considering the trees that are sacrificed to make the books in the first place), I think that there is already a strong economic motivation not to write in books for those who are likely to pass their books on to others, mainly the inability to re-sell books that have been written in. For those of us who hold on to books forever and a day, it will likely be years before anyone else ever has the chance to own the books, so this argument holds less validity.

Those who are against writing in books also argue that it is a form of narcissism--that those of us who do write in books do so out of a desire to somehow make our own imprint on works of genius. I completely disagree with this--the books that I write in, I do so out of admiration for the author. I generally feel unequal to the task of absorbing all that s/he has to say without taking notes (for my own benefit) along the way. It is not a way of trying to change the work, or make my own contribution. It is a sign of reverence and admiration, and it should be viewed as such.

P.S. Anyone who uses the word "real" in the following sense is an idiot: "Most of us real book lovers are disgusted by the site [sic] of someone else's hackneyed, fading, poorly-handwriten [sic], shaky ink notes in the precious (used) books we buy."

4 comments:

Daniele said...

I spent a lot of time in the public library as a kid, So I tend to feel a little guilty even when underlining passages I really like in books that I own...I actually usually use brackets because that involves less ink...

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I quickly got over my writing-in-books phobia when I took a Chaucer class and didn't understand a DAMN word the man was saying. That book is full of notes with transalations, explanations, etc. "Whan that Aprill with his shores soote..."

And I use brackets too... but out of laziness rather than ink conservation.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it seems to be a popular phrase nowadays.

Those REAL book lovers...

or perhaps...

REAL americans...

Versus what? Synthetic americans?

I mean, seriously? WTF?

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Some of the comments on that blog get borderline-hysterical: "Well, if YOU loved books the way I love books, you'd NEVER write in them. You're an evil, book-hating COMMIE!"

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