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.
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!