Marginalia

I have always hated my handwriting. After years of practice, writing papers, essays, blog posts, journal entries, and letters, I have reached a point where I would describe my hand as legibly neat. Not elegant or beautiful, but workmanlike. I am self-conscious about its clumsiness, and that it appears (in my sole estimation) as that of an uncouth teenager.[1] In contrast,typed fonts are pristine.

Some of my least favorite assignments in high school were ones that involved required marginalia in English classes. I distinctly recall two classes that wanted the students to underline and/or annotate poems and stories–a task from which I recoiled on several levels. First, there was my handwriting. I thought that any marginalia of merit should be neat, at least to the point where it does not detract aesthetically from the sterile print on the page. In this, I was in awe of my artistic classmates and those with elegant script. On this level, the comments were irrelevant; just the thought of my ghastly print filled me with dread.

Then there was the commentary. What was I supposed to write? Noting allusions? Themes? Summary? Commentary? Emotes (the king then mostly found on AOL Instant Messenger)? And cui bono? Were these marginalia for my own future remembrance? (Unlikely; I don’t even remember which texts I annotated.) For a future reader? (Unlikely; at least one was a poem in a text book bought for the class.) For the teacher? (Probably, since it was for a grade. [2]) That I did not like most of the books I read for class in high school did not help this paralysis either, but I never grew out of my distaste for marginalia. I still don’t like my handwriting or really know what to say in margin notes. I will underline passages on photocopied articles, but mostly because those are short enough that I can flip through them quickly–with longer books I take copious notes by hand on another sheet of paper. It is a labor intensive alternative to marginalia, but I believe it has actually helped me and that I not merely being obstinate in this practice.

But I am not universally opposed to marginalia–just to my own. One of my favorite things about buying used books is finding some touching inscriptions and marginalia. One recent example is that while reading Bend Sinister by Nabokov, there was an early scene where the Professor Adam Krug idly corrects the punctuation of a document he is reading. The image evidence amused the earlier reader and s/he added a smiley face in the margin. This earlier reader, though not one for words, was an incessant commenter, employing lines, starts, and question marks at regular intervals, with a periodic exclamation point for punctation. None of the comments were as charming as the emoticon, though, and the more frequently they occurred, the more distracting they became. [3]

In fact, this is something I notice about a lot of marginalia from a single hand: an occasional comment is like chatting about a book with someone; a constant barrage is like doing a close reading of the same text–unless there is an ulterior motive (class, publication) it can distract from enjoyment. In the library today, I put back two books that I want to read because I found entire chapters covered in extended commentary. [4] Marginalia can be a great boon, and to see several voices engaged, blindly, in discussion can be fascinating, but too much marginalia seemingly without purpose is rapidly becoming one of my pet peeves because it gets in the way of my reading of the book.

And one more thing: don’t write in library books, it is incredibly selfish. Seriously.


[1] And, of course, as I write this out by hand, I botch spelling “uncouth,” and awkwardly superimpose the correct letters, adding to my frustration.

[2] I can better appreciate the issues with grading now, but I still don’t love assigned marginalia and would rather push for more writing, instead.

[3] To be fair, the passage that received the exclamation point was shocking.

[4] I blame the subject, in part. I can see how philosophical novels could draw a wordy and opinionated audience.

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