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On World Book Day 2019, delving into the beauty of marginalia, and how it adds to the reading experience

In The Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter obtains a second-hand copy of an Advanced Potion-Making textbook. The book is full of handwritten notes that fill all the margins, empty spaces, and sometimes even over the printed words. While initially making the textbook hard to read, the annotations turn out to be quite helpful, elevating Harry to the top of his Potions class, teaching him new spells, and sending him on a quest to discover the identity of the previous owner (the “Half-Blood Prince”).

This type of annotation is called marginalia, a term which includes everything from the writing in the margins of a printed book to underlining or otherwise marking out passages with asterisks or other symbols — essentially any type of visible interaction a reader has with their book. It is the reader’s input towards the reading experience, and encompasses everything on the pages of a book other than the printed word. Marginalia are an invaluable resource for, among other disciplines, the history of the book and the sociology of reading. For literary scholars focusing on archival textual research, ranging from ancient Sanskrit and medieval European manuscripts to more recent texts, marginalia are an exciting research methodology. They show the inputs made by authors, scribes or publishers, and most vividly, the readers of these archives.

Of course, many readers prefer books to remain pristine; some books even demand that reverence. However, marginalia serve as a type of visible record, marking the person as a reader of the book. On the occasion of World Book Day, let’s take a look at how this understated component adds to the reading experience.

Indulging in marginalia can make one an active reader; instead of only reading, one is interacting with the book, thinking about the matter and responding to it, often recording their thoughts, essentially conversing with the book. Often private, marginalia might give clues about a reader’s personality and sometimes even highlight the things that are important to them. Marginalia can also be a way to record those sometimes inspired, longer, well thought-out responses; theories, ideas, revelations; or a repetition of the lessons that a book might teach.

 On World Book Day 2019, delving into the beauty of marginalia, and how it adds to the reading experience

Marginalia from a secondhand Potions textbook's previous owner helps Harry Potter get to the top of his class, in The Half-Blood Prince. Image via

As a way of announcing your opinion to everyone with access to your copy for posterity, marginalia are a great tool of self-expression. Mark Twain added ‘into rotten English’ and ‘by an ass’ on the title page of his copy of Plutarch’s Lives so that the sentences now read: ‘Translated from the Greek into rotten English by John Dryden and others’ and ‘The whole carefully revised and corrected by an ass’.

Vladimir Nabokov goes a step further in his reading of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Instead of just expressing his disapproval of the English, he regularly changes words, alters spelling, and works on the book almost as it were a rough draft of his own, or as an editor. He’s using marginalia to create a smoother reading experience for the next read or reader; or perhaps as a way of voicing the pedant in him.

A book can contain multitudinous meanings, and marginalia can also be a way to note down personal readings and understandings. With this habit, one may be encouraged to capture those fleeting thoughts that come in the moment of reading, which otherwise might have escaped. Sylvia Plath, for instance, penned in ‘l’Ennui’ next to the line ‘Sophisticated – God, I’m sophisticated!’ in her copy of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. They’re also one way of expressing those raw, honest, immediate responses one has to words. A gentle exploration of these snippets of personal thoughts and lives is the topic of Billy Collins’ poem Marginalia.

Also bearing historical significance, marginalia is an informative, and oft-ignored, record of the book’s past. In terms of the history of the book, marginalia is the perspective of a reader in a certain time, historically, socially, culturally, economically. It is the analysis and response to the matter of the book, from a person amidst a specific part of history, and gives important information about the book’s reception, providing historical commentary around the book. A book and reader affect each other, and with marginalia, a study of this two-way effect, through time, becomes possible. An interesting example is a folio, William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, now at the Folger Shakespeare Library, vehemently guarded as an irreplaceable cultural artefact. On the recto of the page detailing the actor’s names, in a child’s hand, are drawings of chimney houses and stick figures. This Shakespearean text, now of prime significance, was at one time just another book for a child to doodle in, attesting to its historical journey.

Sometimes, marginalia is less textually illuminating, where instead of comments, one is faced with personal information, stains, scribbles and doodles. These, while not adding to the text directly, provide a type of contextual understanding of the book. Names or dates of purchase can help with provenance of the book, while other personal information might suggest that this book was a close companion to a reader. Food stains might attest to a book being gripping or companionable enough that the reader did not want to put down the book even while eating. Scribbles in a child’s hand give a glimpse into their bookish environment growing up. Or maybe the book was a friend, not just because of what it has to say, but because its physical presence was also comforting. The reader perhaps liked to keep the book around, even if just to absent-mindedly doodle in.

There’s an intimate beauty to books that have been highlighted, written on in every empty inch of a page with reference arrows going everywhere, and a book entirely worn and somewhat torn. Marked and used, with a reader writing vigorously in it and taking it places, folding it different ways — conversing, agreeing, arguing with it — the book is respected as something important enough to pour one’s self into. With e-books, this type of interjection feels unnatural at best. In opening a “notes” or “comment” feature each time, typing something out and minimising it, much of the spontaneity and organic quality of marginalia is diminished. While technology provides readers with many of the tools for marginalia, one still cannot draw arrows starting from one word and going to three different places across the page; one cannot invent a key of personal symbols to mark out different types of thoughts; and one certainly cannot showcase doodle creativity.

Overall, marginalia are a treasure trove recording the book-reader relationship. They help trace the actual, living experience of reading in general, and of being a reader of that specific book. Marginalia add a whole new dimension to a book already teeming with life. Sometimes, writing in and reading a book to tatters allows for its truest form of consumption. Marginalia are a record of all these conversations between readers and their books, a way for readers and their side of the conversation to be as present in the book’s history. Of course, we don’t often like sharing books we have penned our thoughts in, since they serve almost as a personal diary in that moment. However, seeing a marked second-hand book presents a unique opportunity to peek into the mind of a previous reader, and establishes past ownership of that book.

To such a book, go ahead, add your own comments, have a conversation with the previous reader, and eventually, pass the book on to another!

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Updated Date: Apr 23, 2019 11:52:12 IST