marginalia and raucous conversations

“Reading a book should not be a passive exercise, but rather a raucous conversation.”  –marginalia Studs Terkel, Pulitzer Prize author, historian, actor, and broadcaster, was known to admonish friends who would read his books but leave them free of markings.

Marginalia is the study of things scribbled in margins of books.


I am a book margin scribbler myself <although I doubt my scribbled-in books will make anyone any money someday>.

I call them marks of affection. Indicators of my relationship with the words I found within. Sometimes they are notes of inspiration … for new thoughts, ideas, things I will write in the future, things I may speak in the future … or simply admiration for wording.

My margins are a reflection of the immediate me. am I scarring a book or simply etching my appreciation for a stunning glimpse of clarity?

My To Kill a Mockingbird <albeit not my 1st edition copy> tends to highlight Scout’s wisdom.

The Eight by Katherine Neville <a 1st edition I have read and reread> is strewn with notes regarding history and thoughts.

And many many other nondescript books which may have had only one truly memorable literary moment <most published books have at least one incredibly well crafted thought>.


I also admit I love collecting older books with notes in the margins thumbing through dusty yellow paged books in random corners of used bookstores seeking scribbled margins.

I think the notes represent a book within a book.

A glimpse into what some stranger sees or feels.

I believe how I feel about marginalia puts me in a minority. Scribbling in margins just seems like something polite readers do not do.

A guy named Paul F. Gehl blames generations of librarians and teachers for “inflicting us with the idea” that writing in books makes them “spoiled or damaged.”

I agree.

And I would add in my parents and all the other adults around me.

Marginalia was more common in the 1800s.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a prolific margin writer, as were William Blake and Charles Darwin.


marginalia making book fee loved“In getting my books I have always been solicitous of an ample margin; this is not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of penciling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” – Edgar Allan Poe


I imagine it is a certain type of reader who might be inclined to underlining, noting things or even scribbling notes & comments in the margin.

Speaking as one myself I know I am giving a book my complete attention as i hover over the pages with a pencil nearby when words inspire me to do so. I also believe it is a commitment to return. To regather those comments and thoughts another day.

“… quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.” – George Steiner <defining an intellectual>



I am not an intellectual … but I do tend to read with a pencil nearby, scribble notes or circle phrases or turn down the corner of pages if I find something I want to reread.

All of those things I just stated about the margins of books?

Uh oh.

I hear a chorus of librarians <and my mother and sister> groaning about the sanctity of the book.

But I have Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Coleridge and Studs Terkel on my side.

All were proponents of this nefarious deed.


Mark Twain left a comment about “Huckleberry Finn,” in his copy of “The Pen and the Book” by Walter Besant.

The book, about making a profit in publishing, scarcely qualifies as a literary masterpiece. It is highly valuable, instead, because Mark Twain penciled, among other observations, a one-way argument with the author, Walter Besant, that “nothing could be stupider” than using advertising to sell books as if they were “essential goods” like “salt” or “tobacco.” On another page, Twain made some snide remarks about the big sums being paid to another author of his era, Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.


Twain was engaging in marginalia.

And despite the fact the only thing I share with Twain is having a mustache … I also engage in marginalia.


Despite the fact everyone will be skewering me for marking up books … marginalia has a rich literary history <sometimes regarded as literary archaeology as I try and explain my modern graffiti in the classics>.

Part of the history?

<I have stolen these examples from another wrier on marginalia>


Some examples, like Fermat’s Last Theorem, are of the most desperate importance.

Others, like an early medieval monk writing ‘My hand is so cold I can hardly hold the quill’, are utterly unimportant but immediate.

In some cases, there is art work – Nabokov sketching a beetle in his copy of Metamorphis.

In other cases, there is an absence of anything intelligible: Churchill’s poignant red crayon marks on German decrypts detailing their murdering ways on the Eastern Front.

There is stupid marginalia: a student copy of Wilfred Owen’s collected poems where the word ‘futile’ had been written in big block capitals next to that poet’s Futility.

There is irrelevant marginalia by important people: Lincoln’s attempts to learn legal Latin in his law books.

Then there is important marginalia by irrelevant people. The first evidence of Hamlet being performed in a Chaucer belonging to one Gabriel Harvey: ‘The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, but his Lucrece, and his Hamlet Prince of Denmark have it in them to please the wiser sort’.

There is stolen marginalia – the ‘precious’  early Welsh stanzas from the Juvencus manuscript were cut from their place and hoarded away by a scholar.

There is posthumous marginalia – medieval glosses copied out as a text in manuscripts where we’ve lost the original margins: for example, the Greek words taught to Anglo-Saxon students in the seventh-century by Theodore of Canterbury. 

There is even – in homage to Invisible Libraries – Invisible Marginalia: in Wuthering Heights, for example, there is a reference to Catherine’s pen portrayal of Joseph in a margin of a book.

There is even’ notes to friends’ marginalia: Coleridge in a borrowed book of Charles Lamb: ‘I will not be long here, Charles!—& gone, you will not mind my having spoiled a book in order to leave a Relic.’



As I noted earlier … sometimes when you read you are inspired by how something is articulated.

Therefore Marginalia can reflect history … as in the fact one book can create a source of inspiration <for another book>.

Like this.

A copy of Thoreau’s “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” <which had been borrowed by Jack Kerouac from a local library in 1949 and never to be returned> has on page 227 a short sentence Kerouac had underlined in pencil with a “small, neat check mark beside it.”

The sentence: “The traveler must be born again on the road.”

<of course … Kerouac is famous for his book “on the road”>



I found a relatively bad overall poem about marginalia which has a couple of very good stanzas:


From Billy Collins’ poem ‘Marginalia’:

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.


friends_talking_on_benchWell … I have always been a book giver … but maybe I should become a book lender … and encourage people to write in the margins when inspired. Mostly because I am relatively sure I have never had a bad discussion when discussing a book … even a raucous discussion.

Am I speaking heresy <to the sanctity of published literature>?

Aw. Who knows.

To me?

We should all at some point “seize the white perimeter as our own.”


Make notes.


Make more notes.

Books are made to create a raucous conversation … whether it be with others … or in your own head.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Written by Bruce