Fat Books & Thin Women


Is it wrong that I only like my own marginalia?
May 17, 2011, 10:25 am
Filed under: Ways of Reading | Tags: , , , ,

I often work myself into a state over the future of stuff related to books that are actually books – like, you know, loaning books to people, buying used books on the cheap, finding strange things in library books (I still have nightmares about what I found stuck to the pages of a children’s book I checked out when I was about twelve – maybe it’s good if some of these things pass away), dog-earing and marginalia.

Despite Amazon’s attempts to create a “community” around reading by sharing notes and markings created on its kindle reader, the habits of book bloggers when it comes to extensive quoting and philosophizing on what makes a book good, and the fondness of countless twitter and facebook users for posting quotes that “really, really represent their lives”, nothing, in my mind, replaces old-fashioned marginalia, the stuff you scrawl in your book and the sloppy underlining that manages to obscure surrounding passages.

It’s occurred to me, though, that despite my interest in the New York Times’s take on the dismal future of marginalia, I don’t have a whole lot of interest in what other people have to write in the books they’re reading. There’s the occasional exception, like my copy of Of Mice and Men in which every curse has been scribbled over, suggested replacements written in the margins, but I often act more like Rory Gilmore, seeking the used book that either hasn’t been marked up or is the former property of a lazy if enthusiastic highlighter who didn’t make it past the first chapter. Yet when it comes to my own reading, I dog-ear, underline and make notes freely, secure in knowing that my every thought as I read is of interest to future readers.

I picked up a copy of The Best American Short Stories (2001) from the Peace Corps library last Friday, and the markings are so unrelenting and obtrusive that I want to track down the book’s original owner and give her a talking-to. Once I start reading someone else’s notes on a book I can’t stop, in much the same way that I keep reading the facebook status updates of people I haven’t spoken to in years and didn’t like all that much in the first place. But some of this reader’s marginalia isn’t just redundant or stupid; it gets in the way of the story, as when she writes, “foreshadowing of future betrayal,” evidently getting some retrospective marginal notes in there to thumb her nose at the reader who, not having completed the story, has no idea that there is a betrayal on its way.

Sometimes, maybe in this short story case, marginalia is not good at all. Sometimes, as with Of Mice and Men or when a famous author writes something awesome in a book he’s reading, it’s very good. But do any of us have much interest in the marginalia of other people, or is it nothing but an intrusion into our reading? Is my interest in preserving my own marginalia nothing more than another example of my self-centered nature, or is this the way most people feel? And is it wrong that I feel strongly about the need to preserve marginalia, but only when I consider it insightful or when I write it myself (which is saying the same thing, really)?

What are your thoughts on marginalia – do you like it all the time, just when you’re writing it, just when famous people, friends, family (people you have some interest in) are writing it, just when it’s well-done, or never? And why?

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9 Comments

When I was still in school, I underlined, highlighted, scribbled in the margins, etc. In pen no less! It was pretty much a necessity. Nowadays I still occasionally underline, usually in pencil, and only in paperbacks…never, ever in hardcovers. I recently bought a silver pen and I started underlining Madwoman in the Attic with it. I kind of like it…because in certain lighting, the underlines are *almost* imperceptible, so the book doesn’t seem… “marred” to me, and I don’t feel like I’m back in school. I might continue using that pen for my scribbling endeavors :) But more to your question, I don’t like other people’s marginalia at all. I received a book (via swaptree) that was written in, and it pretty much ruined the book for me. Sounds extreme, but I find it distracting somehow. I don’t like seeing the “notes” in my kindle app either. I think I have that feature turned off.

Comment by Nicole

the notes feature in kindle seems distracting and pretty pointless to me. since i have a 3G kindle but live in europe i can’t get online with my kindle, which in many ways is a relief…i’ve avoided all these weird and unnerving kindle developments (back issues of magazines disappearing once you unsubscribe, being able to view other people’s notes and highlights, books vanishing), and if i use the kindle when i’m back in the states i’ll probably keep the wireless off.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Great post! I definitely don’t like reading other people’s marginalia. Like you mentioned, it’s really distracting to the actual story, and if what is written spoils the rest of the book in any way it’s really hard for me to continue. Reading the marginalia of famous authors (such as Mark Twain) is interesting, but even then I don’t think I’d want to see it in a book that I’m holding.

When I go browsing through used bookstores, I have to thumb through every book I’m thinking about purchasing to check for such markings. I often wonder why people would give away a book that they felt so compelled to mark up extensively with their thoughts/reactions/spoilers. I guess part of me likes having a clean slate for my writing. I like going back and reading my own marginalia years later.

Comment by Jenna (Literature and a Lens)

right, i like reading my own marginal notes too – i like the feel of having an added layer of time when i’m reading. and most books i make notes in, i’m making notes in because they’re ones i want to hang on too. i’ll occasionally write in a book i don’t like, that i plan on passing on as soon as i can, but not often and not extensively. and i’m sure that whoever gets those books, with stuff like “purple prose” scribbled on every other page, hates me as much as i hate the mysterious writer who had this short story collection before me.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

My reaction to marginalia depends on what kind of conversation I plan to have with the book. Some kinds of books seem to require private conversation, just between the two of us. With other books, I don’t mind opening the conversation to some mysterious former owner. Reading a previous owner’s marginalia is a little like peering at him through a two-way mirror, like spying on his personal thoughts about the book. Sometimes his thinking about the text enhances mine. Sometimes I disagree on his annotation. In either case, decent highlighting and marginalia can improve my reading experience. Other notes in the margin annoy me: the previous reader has highlighted or underlined in a way that defaces the text and makes it illegible; I can’t begin to fathom her reasons for underlining a particular passage, or a comment in the margin just seems irrelevant to my own reading experience.

I like my own marginalia, that ghost of some other, younger, more sincere and naive self lingering on the pages. If I’m reading Russian, my vocabulary notes in the margins are indispensable (and pretty much guarantee that when I die those copies will have to go into recycling; they’d be very irritating for most bibliophiles). I like going back to have conversations with my younger self about a new reading, because what I see in some texts now is very different from what I saw when I read them the first time around. I like being able to flip back through the pages and find a particular passage quickly; somehow highlighting or underlining or scribbling marginalia helps me to retain the material better, to somehow give a passage not just a shape in my mind’s eye, but a physical shape on the paper.

If I find a book with marginalia at a used book sale, I can always decide whether to engage in conversation with that mysterious third party, or to spring for a new, clean copy from Amazon and keep my reading pleasures…a little more private.

Comment by Jerri Bell

I find notes from others really fascinating. What someone else has written isn’t going to change the way I feel about the storyline, or the subject. I honestly don’t mind if books that I purchase are dog-earred, or written in. I do mind when pages are torn/ripped and stained with unknown substances. I frequently write in and dog-ear my pages because it serves as quick reference when I’m in need. I don’t like when other people diss on those that do. I obviously value my books, and use them in a way that best serves me.

Comment by Beth

right, i don’t like it either when people start proclaiming that it’s wrong to dog-ear, underline, make notes in the margins. i do all of those things, and if i think i’m going to want to write in a book i’ll buy it rather than check it out of the library, so that i can do all of those things. what i’m finding, though – and i admit that i find this kind of weird, since i am such a fan of writing in books – is that i’m not able to tune out or, better, interact with the marginal notes other people have made. there are exceptions, like when i’m reading a loaner from a friend or family member or someone i love talking books with, but i usually prefer rereading my own marginal notes. which, still, seems weird; i wish that i could take a more generous view of the notes in the book i’m reading now, but every time there’s a note comparing a character to, say, Ignatius J. Reilly (for no apparent reason other than that they’re both fat) something inside me cries out for relief.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I completely understand. In response to the Ignatius J. Reilly comment–you start to have an argument with the unknown author before you realize what you’re doing!

Comment by Beth

You’ve expressed a thoughtful point of view here. I agree that maginalia that doesn’t contribute much to the text or further my understanding of a passage is almost wasteful and then just annoying. I’m especially not a big fan of finding writing that is in pen or highlighter. However, when it is meaningful (I am writing it) or when the writer of the marginalia knows what he or she is talking about, then I really enjoy it, as it adds a whole other dimension to the book.

Comment by Brenna




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