Marginalia

Question – Do you think it is correct and appropriate to write and annotate in the books you are reading? I know some see this as sacrilege and would never think to defile a book so. In fact, in the culture that I was raised, books are seen as property of the divine, in that they contain knowledge, and so you shouldn’t even place one on the floor. Let alone prop up a wonky cupboard with one or heaven forbid write in one.

I like to politely disagree with this point of view. When I read, I often do so with a pencil and a highlighter, along with a note book. My memory is not what it used to be, and so I like to remind myself of great phrasing, wonderful planning etc through little aide memoirs.  And these little notes are called marginalia. Below I have collected some examples for your viewing pleasure.

David Foster Wallace

This is the inside cover of David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Players by Don DeLillo. David Foster Wallace was an incredibly influential author, impacting on such luminaries such as Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen to name a few. His novel Infinite Jest was widely considered one the great novels of the 20th century. In his copy of the Players you can see hints at the vast complexity of this author who sadly took his own life in 2008.  You can see more of Wallace’s extravagant marginalia here.

Christopher Hitchens

Another author who is sadly no longer with us is Christopher Hitchens. Prior to writing an article for Vanity Fair, he decided to go through The Great Gatsby to help identify themes in the novel. However he couldn’t resist a bit of controversy  and so noted in his copy of The Great Gastby. “Another dubious one-liner (but see Charles Ryder on his missus)” / “First mention of ‘careless people’ (better than car-less)?”

Vladimir Nabokov

The first page of Vladimir Nabokov’s copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I personally like that Nabokov has drawn the creature Gregor Samsa turns into. I guess we all have our mind’s eye and how we see the world presented to us. I feel Nabokov wanted something clear for him to hold on to in such an existential and bleak novel, and so drew the creature.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s improvements to the title page of Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men is quite famous. His little note reads:

“Translated from the Greek into rotten English by John Dreydon and others… The Whole Carefully Revised and Corrected by an ass.

The bits in bold are the bits added in that inimitable Mark Twain voice.

Sylvia Plath

And finally is Sylvia Plath’s copy of The Great Gatsby. As you can see, unlike the men of this list who’s voices boomed across their books in the shape of notes, Plath writes with her usual restraint, merely highlighting ennui .

What great notes or marginalia have you come across? What are the types of notes you make in books?

On an aside, in my research I found that in the middle ages, monks used to fill their manuscripts with marginalia. These could be crude little asides, annoyance at the translation that was done before, or just mere exasperation at a tedious job. They would often illustrate their illuminated manuscripts too, again with jokes, or filthy asides to pass away the time hunched over a tallow candle in a drafty abbey somewhere on a moor.  I was able to collect a large number of really weird  medieval marginalia images, which I am sure I can share if you tweet the good people at Novlr for it.

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