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
Legacy', Greenfield '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. Australia