[TSS] Bookish Bliss: Marginalia

The title of this post is a little misleading. I don’t actually know that marginalia is “bookish bliss”, because I have yet to indulge myself. It’s just that I really want to find out what it’s like, so I’m writing this post as a way of giving myself permission.

To, you know … write in books.

Kirchhofer_Wahrheit_und_Dichtung_016Kirchhofer Wahrheit und Dichtung 016” by Melchior Kirchhofer – scan from original book. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve never written in books. Not even when I was an English major in university and writing in the books I had to read for my classes probably would have been helpful when it came time to write those essays. And not even when I was in law school, when we had volumes and volumes of material to wade through.

I took notes, instead, on looseleaf paper. Lots and lots of notes, lots and lots of pages of looseleaf. I still have most of the books from my English courses (not the law school books, though – those are long gone). And none of the notes. When I look at those books on my shelves, I can’t help but think how much more interesting they’d be if I had written my notes in their margins.

What’s the allure of marginalia? In this New Yorker piece, Lauren Collins notes “Marginalia are the original comments section.” There’s definitely something to that.

Marginlia permits us to participate more fully in the reading of a book. Reading is often seen as a passive experience, but it doesn’t have to be. Over at Salon, Laura Miller writes,

“Marginalia is a blow struck against the idea that reading is a one-way process, that readers simply open their minds and the great, unmediated thoughts of the author pour in. In reality, reading is always a collaboration between reader and author, and even the basic act of underlining a passage represents a moment in the individual, unrepeatable experience that one person had with one book on one particular day.”

In a piece in The Millions which showcased the marginalia he made in the books he read in 2010, critic Sam Anderson has this to say about marginalia:

The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It’s the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible — not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain.

His 2012 marginalia can be seen here.

I like the idea of having a conversation with the author as I’m reading his or her book, turning reading into more of an interactive experience. I already have these thoughts in my head as I’m reading, but I lose so much by not jotting them down. I do copy out passages and write down my reactions to them in a commonplace book, but there’s something about writing in the margins of a book that sounds so intimate and immediate.

So now all I need to do is give myself permission to write in a book. I’ve done worse to books – I’ve altered them as art projects, slopped gesso over them, stuck acrylic medium between pictures to make thicker canvases for paint. But those were all books I didn’t want to read. Writing in a book I do want to read? A part of me feels like its a form of sacrilege. I need to keep in mind what Mortimer Adler says in his classic How to Read a Book:

Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it.

Do you write in the books that you read? Tell me more about your marginalia habit, if you have one!

10 thoughts on “[TSS] Bookish Bliss: Marginalia

  1. Beth F

    I wrote all over my textbooks, but rarely in books I read for pleasure. I do, however, often put stars in the margin when a passage calls to me. That’s one of the things I don’t like about eBooks.

  2. Kay

    I was a crazy woman with a highlighter and notes when I was in college. But, the only personal book that I’ve ever done that with was my Bible. I don’t even turn down corners. Part of that is a library staff thing, but part of it is just me. I think you are right though. Notes in the margins would be interesting to read later. And I can’t do that with my e-books or maybe I could, but I haven’t figured that out yet. Good luck with your quest to write in your books! LOL

  3. Heidenkind

    I have written in books, academic books anyway. The thing is, you don’t really understand the value of marginalia until,you come across it. Kind of like the marginalia in Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince: it benefits the readers that come after you just as much, if not more, than yourself.

  4. Becca Lostinbooks

    “The original comments section” – I love that!

    The only book I’ve written marginalia in is a copy of the Bible that I had throughout college. I was reading it in its entirety and trying to make sense of things. I would mark passages with questions mostly.

  5. looloolooweez

    This is such an interesting topic, and I love that you took the time to hunt down some interesting links to share. I haven’t written in a book since I was in college & taking notes in textbooks, but I am fascinated by marginalia in the used books I discover at the local shop. Personally I just hate my handwriting on “regular” paper and trying to write anything of substance in a cramped margin only makes it worse! One thing I like about e-books is that I can take notes that are (1) typed and therefore readable and (2) “hidden” so that I don’t have to look at them if I’m hoping for a fresh re-read.

    1. Belle Wong Post author

      I need to start adding notes to ebooks, too! I haven’t even tried the highlighting function. I can see marginalia’s going to be lots of fun.

  6. Rob

    You *MUST* give yourself permission to scribble in the margins of your books because trust me, the very act of doing so *is* ‘bookish bliss’. As you have alluded to through the opinions of others, the very act is personal, private and wholly engaging.

    I used to be with the pristine crowd, where I thought the most important thing to do with a book was to keep it in immaculate condition. I still think this to a certain degree (with hardbacks and books that have sentimental value), but have changed my mind massively with cheaper books, regularly engaging in conversation with the author in the margins. It feels so liberating, and the connection is profound – way more than if you take notes in a separate place.

    If you need further convincing then please read this essay by Anne Fadiman, where she explains the difference between courtly love and carnal love when it comes to books. This was the single piece of writing that encouraged me to make the jump, and start writing notes directly in my books.

    http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/uploadedFiles/schools/wheatonhs/departments/aphonors/Fadiman_NeverDoThatToABook2(2).pdf (pdf format)

    Oh, and one more thing – when you start writing in your books you create repositories of personal thought, feeling, opinion and memory, which will become priceless to both you and your future generations.


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