Wednesday, May 18, 2011


David Foster Wallace's marginalia in a Delillo novel

There's a really interesting article on the New York Times website regarding marginalia in books. In it Sam Anderson argues that you can never truly "own" a book until you've written in it.

Underlining, notes in the margin, circling keywords, reactive exclamation points and question marks, doodling snails in the corners (okay, maybe that's just me)... For Anderson, he considers marking in books to be meditative:

Books have become my journals, my critical notebooks, my creative outlets. Writing in them is the closest I come to regular meditation;

I know the feeling. I didn't really start marking up my books until college. Prior to that I would just keep a notebook handy (preferably with something gaudy on the front, like a Lisa Frank unicorn), writing down favorite passages and reactions to the text. It made me feel like Harriet the Spy. Except instead of spying on real people, I was spying on the characters in stories. How ironic that while reading Harriet the Spy, I was actually spying on Harriet, the spy.

My first year in college, one of my English professors retired and let students take as many books from her office as they wanted. From all the books I grabbed, the thing I noticed were how marked up they were. So much underlining, comments in the margin...I still have her lovely marked-up copy of The Death of the Heart. Going through those books I learned how to become a quintessential English major book destroyer. (Thanks Dr. Keyser!)

After college I stopped my marginalia craze. Possibly because I'm a librarian deep at heart. Or, no, more like a bookseller. With every pen mark, dog-eared page, tear and crease, I'm calculating the price-reduction in the back of my mind.

And that's really why I started this blog. I didn't really intend, or still intend, to do book reviews. Not exactly. I just thought, how can I still collect my favorite passages, personal reactions, reflections, references, and notes so I can access them anywhere? Even without a Lisa Frank notebook? Even if I no longer own the book itself? Because, sure, I'm gonna have my heavily-marked up copy of Fahrenheit 451 forever. But the latest Nick Hornby novel? Probably not.

Also, doing this whole virtual marginalia thing has become even more handy since I've started getting e-books.

in a world in which we’ll no longer own books as discrete physical objects, the only really meaningful thing we’ll own will be the reading experience itself.

In the article Anderson suggests e-book providers consider getting on board with the marginalia revival and offer a means for readers to not only make notes in the e-text, but also have the capability to share those notes.

Marginalia — with its social thrill of shared immersion — is what the culture is moving toward, not away from. We are living increasingly in a culture of response. Twitter is basically electronic marginalia on everything in the world: jokes, sports, revolutions.

Could this include not just friends, but also...authors? Past and present? I know I would pay a great deal to see, say...Chuck Palahniuk's notes in a Nicholas Sparks novel. It'd be like a literary Mystery Science Theatre 3000!

I am so tempted to start up a literary MST3K blog now, you have no idea. MSB3K.

So although there are plenty of doors that seem to be closing with the move to e-books, there are even more opening up.

I’ve long been frustrated with the “distance” between criticism and reading itself. Most critical energy is expended in big-picture work — situating texts in history, talking about broad themes — all of which is useful but hardly touches the excitement of actual reading, a process of discovery that happens in time, moment by moment, line by line. What I really want is someone rolling around in the text. I want noticing. I want, in short, marginalia, everywhere, all the time. Suddenly that seems deliriously possible.

There's another article on the NY Times website that discusses some pretty interesting examples of historical marginalia. Like, did you know Mark Twain was a cynical old grump who liked to argue with authors within the pages of their own novels? Well, yeah, I guess that's no surprise. Somehow I've always pictured Mark Twain as being the Gary Busey of authors.

But until celebrity e-marginalia is possible, you'll have to stick with buying marked-up books the old fashioned way (over the internet? is that old fashioned?) has had a special From the Library of Anne Rice feature that's been going on for awhile. All the books are from her library, although only some have her notations in them. So being the gulla-bull that I am, I bought her copy of Frankenstein a few months ago. I figured, it's in her genre, it's the reason her genre exists, and I could always use another copy.

I was a bit disappointed, seeing as how her markings end after the first chapter. But I do love this one line she bracketed in the preface:

A perfect description of everything her writing, and the entire science fiction/horror genre, is derived from. Lovely. Worth what I paid just to see this marked by her.

SO. Don't be afraid to mark your books! Unless...unless you plan on one day donating said books to a library. Please spare this library worker. My black magic marker runneth dry from de-personalizing many a book. No, seriously. Please don't write your name in the front (and the back, and the spine, and on each exposed side) of a book unless you plan on having it buried with you.

1 comment:

  1. I must admit I've never been one to mark up books for the most part. The neat thing about the Kindle is you can make notes, if you wish, in a book. I haven't tried it yet, but it could come in handy one day.