Thursday, 25 May 2017

Do you like Marginalia?

I mentioned this subject long ago on my personal blog, and thought I'd elaborate on it today. Marginalia is defined on Wikipedia as 'The scribbles, comments and illuminations in the margin of a book,' I enjoy stumbling across unexpected examples, because if readers want to make the effort to add their two cents worth, they often think they have something valuable, or at least amusing to say. And perhaps they do. Or maybe they think the author's words are so great, they simply wish to remember them. For such a simple habit, I was surprised by the polarising opinions expressed by the general public in a poll I saw.

Let's get the negative out of the way first. Some people seemed to react as if they were being asked whether they condone murder. And since some hardcore book lovers seem to regard their books as living friends, that attitude may not be hard to understand. With every stroke of a pen, a page bleeds. Others tend to treat it like graffiti. They believe that vandals who consider themselves artists deface public property, in the same way that disrespectful or know-it-all readers deface the pages of books. If profanity and coarse language make their way into marginalia, it may be easy to see their point. However, I believe that if we're willing to think outside the square (and I realise that's a sort of pun), there's also a good side to marginalia.

For a start, old books with marginalia may retain something of their former owners' presence, giving you an a-ha moment, or even a bit of insight when you come across it. In Lucy Maud Montgomery's 'The Golden Road', the Story Girl receives a Christmas present from the Awkward Man. (Montgomery's tendency to give people labels as names really comes out in this book.) It turns out to be an old book with a great many marks on its pages. The Story Girl's pretty and worldly cousin, Felicity, accuses the Awkward Man of being cheap, and the Story Girl quickly sets her straight, saying she'd rather have her friend's marginalia than a dozen brand new books. She used different words, but that's the gist of it.

It's often possible that remarks scribbled down as marginalia will be honest, heartfelt reflections which might benefit others, otherwise the person who wrote them wouldn't bother. For the same reason, they are often witty, interesting and well worth adding. Spontaneous and fluent thoughts are often the best, and they are what we so often get with marginalia.

If you can call it a hobby, it's a good, cheap one. All you need is a nice sharp lead pencil. But maybe this is stretching it a bit, and surely nobody would recommend that we go jotting margin notes all over library books, calling it our hobby. In fact, if you think a book is worth lots of marginalia, you might as well get a writing journal, jot it all into a longer article and make it a book review.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote, 'In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin ... for the facility it affords me of pencilling in suggested thoughts, agreements, or brief critical comments in general.' If I came across that in an actual book, I'd be tempted to underline it and write a margin note saying, 'Yes, I agree!'

Perhaps one of the saddest and most frustrating bits of marginalia was written by Pierre de Fermat in a famous old text book entitled 'Arithmetica'. He wrote, 'I have discovered a truly marvellous proof which this margin is too narrow to contain.' And Fermat's Last Theorem remained unproven by fellow mathematicians for another three hundred years.

To prove that this practice shouldn't be marginalised (hey, another one), I have four examples, including one of mine, in which a bit of marginalia turns out to be integral to the plot.

1) The Kitchen Daughter, by Jael McHenry
One of the main characters, David, jots a little margin note in the heroine, Ginny's, cookbook. It's simply that she should add a pinch of ancho powder to her hot chocolate to improve the flavour, but the effect is devastating. You have to read it.

2) Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling.
Here's an example from popular fiction. In this sixth book of the series, Harry finds himself in accidental possession of a second hand text book. The former owner had filled it with all sorts helpful additions, jottings and advice. In the short term, this marginalia helped Harry shoot to the top of his class. Only later does he learn the cost of owning the former owner's book.

3) The Boy in the Book by Nathan Penlington
The author bought a stash of old Choose Your Own Adventure books from Ebay, and discovered some long-forgotten margin notes by a previous owner. Some of the details about Terrence's life were so interesting and touching, Nathan decided to track him down if he could. This book is about what happened.

4) A Design of Gold, by Paula Vince
I had a go of my own, long before I'd heard the term, marginalia. My characters, Piers and Casey, discover a book owned by their son, Jerome, in which he has scribbled all sorts of margin notes, giving them vital clues about how troubled he has been in his mind. 'A Design of Gold' contains a lot about the enormous impact a random book may have on the life of the individual who happens to find it.

I'm sure there are many other novels, such as mystery stories, in which marginalia features strongly. If you can think of any, please let me know in the comments. I'd also love to hear any interesting true stories about marginalia you might have come across, not to mention your own feelings about the subject. Do you enjoy marginalia or not?

Paula Vince is a South Australian author of contemporary, inspirational fiction. She lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills, with its four distinct seasons, and loves to use her environment as settings for her stories. Her novel, 'Picking up the Pieces' won the religious fiction section of the International Book Awards in 2011, and 'Best Forgotten' was winner of the CALEB prize the same year. She is also one of the four authors of 'The Greenfield Legacy', Australia's first and only collaborated Christian novel. Her most recent novel, 'Imogen's Chance' was published April 2014. For more of Paula's reflections, you may like to visit her book review blog, The Vince Review.


  1. Hi Paula. Thanks for an entertaining and thought provoking blog. In general I don't mark my books except for textbooks. And of course you are right about library books 😊 Love your examples. The marginalia of famous people often has historical significance. And it does remind me of Geraldine Brooks People of the Book where food stains and hairs reveal the story of the book.

    1. Hi Jenny,
      Yes, the bits and pieces in the old manuscript in 'People of the Book' were unintentional marginalia, when you think about it. Fascinating stuff. Alas, I've accidentally found similar sorts in library or second hand books too. Food smears, jam, coffee or whatever, which sometimes glue the pages together. Not a nice surprise. I just discovered that title by Geraldine Brooks at a Goodwill shop a few weeks ago. So far so good :)

  2. Thanks Paula
    I have never been tempted to write anything in a novel but lots of my Max Lucado-type books are full of my marginalia-ings. Usually an inspiration to help me on this road trip of life!
    (Love your puns....)

    1. Whoops - The same comment appeared twice, so I thought I was deleting the double-up. But unfortunately it took Paula's comment with it as well. Sorry. Will leave things alone in future :(

  3. Thanks Paula. I must have been brought up to treat books with utmost respect - because as I was growing up it felt like I was descrating holy ground if I tried to put my 2 cents worth on a book I was reading. I think one of the problems of marginalia is that it could distract the next reader from their own views as they read the book. I do make notes when I read certain books but usually in a word file rather than on the book itself. If I am sure I'm the only reader - I'd write on my books - but since I usually like to share my books with others - I usually tend to hold back. On the other hand you point out that you find it interesting to find marginalia - so that's something to think about! :) Text books are different and I've marked them! Thank you for making me think Paula. Very interesting!

    1. Hi Anusha,
      On the whole I still have my childhood impulse not to, but I trained myself to start doing it at University, when I saw others jotting notes in text book margins and thought, 'It really does make a lot of sense to help us study, and they are our own books which we paid for.'
      I guess it can be distracting as you say, to come across others. Once or twice, I've come across some ill-natured or mean marginalia which does take off the glow, or at least made me glad I never met the scribbler :) When it comes to novels which I love, I draw the line there, and leave it blank for future readers (or I don't draw the line, to think of it literally and make another pun :) )

  4. Hi Paula - You always come up with such interesting posts. I have a few old poetry books with pencilled comments in the margins and it does make me feel like I know the former owner. I don't write many comments in books, but I often underline things and put asterisks next to important points, though I mainly do that in nonfiction books. For fiction, I have a separate notebook where I record particularly great sentences or metaphors.

    Even underlining can have an effect on people though. I have a friend who was working through a difficult issue that I had also worked through. I lent her a book I had on the topic with lots of my underlining. Before she'd finished the book, I bought her a copy to keep, but when I gave it to her, I could see she was hesitant. I asked her what was wrong and she said, 'Is it okay if I keep reading yours? I like to know that someone's been there before' (i.e. she felt comforted to see what I'd underlined). Though I have come across other people who think you should be drawn and quartered for making any marks in a book! LOL

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    1. Hi Nola,
      Isn't it funny that what appears to be a simple issue like this can elicit such polarising and emotional responses from people. I love the story about your friend. I do get her attitude. You're not just getting one person's input but two, the author of the book and the author of the underlining and asterisks.

      Like you, with fiction, I prefer to use a separate notebook. Maybe marginalia interrupts the flow of the story too much.

  5. What an interesting post! I write in non-fiction books and tend to put post-it notes in novels.

    I see the non-fiction books as sources of information and refer to the notes if I'm blogging about a topic in a particular book.

    I use post-its in novels to highlight great examples of writing.

    My favourite Bible had notes all the way through. Now that's an interesting journey to read!

    1. Hi Elaine,
      That's interesting, you, me and Nola have got the same idea concern marginalia when it comes to fiction and non fiction.

      As for Bibles, I've come across a couple with very wide margins for that very purpose. They know how valuable it can be. I like Post-it notes too, as a way of making marginalia when you don't actually want to mark the book. It also shows they recognise that people will be wanting to do it. Thanks for mentioning this 😊