Friday, March 18, 2011


Whenever I had a university paper due, the library books I reached for were the ones that had been re-bound. The books were uniformly ugly: the re-binding was frequently lime green. The information within was often dated, the pages were leathery from overuse, and it was clear the next step for these resource materials was going to be the pulper. So why the preference? One word: marginalia.

Man, with some of those old books, the essays practically wrote themselves! Key texts were underlined (sometimes highlighted, which annoyed me with its visually jarring colors), and arguments for and against were outlined in the formerly white spaces on either side of the print, often with reference to other works I could look up and include. The feckless and inexperienced preferred newer books to these stinky old things. But at the end or early dawning of the day, who needed Cliff's Notes or even an essay-writing service when these troves were so freely available?

My own contributions to marginalia, on the other hand, should be ignored. Inspired by what I saw, I tried my hand at commentary. After a year or so, when I reread what I'd scrawled (in pen!) I was shamed in realizing what a pretentious twit I'd become. The marginalia promptly stopped.

Anyhow, teh interwebz is abuzz with the seemingly endangered art of marginalia. Will digital deprive us of this pleasure, this artform? Kevin Charles Redmon compiles a number of links exploring the issue, and contributes a few thoughts of his own. But so far, my favorite essay comes from Victor LaValle, who brings a ballsy disregard for the book as totem, over here. Perhaps the time to again uncap my pen has finally arrived.

Marginalia, David Foster Wallace-style.


DarkoV said...

Dear Sir,
Nostalgia runs in the same family of "ia" words a Marginilia, doesn't it? As a lad in the same "pretentious twit" category, I'd taken pen to book as well, with the full encouragement of one of my high school teachers.
And....I'm happy I did. I've saved some of my high school required reading books and, on occasion (seemingly more now these days than in the past), I'd pick them up not so much to re-read them but to nostalgically look through the feverish scrawlings I'd left behind in the books. Was the verborrhea ridiculous at times? You betcha. Were my musings incisive? Absolutely not.
But...they were a great panoramic shot of what that young mind was up to back then. I'd chucked any papers I'd stewed over in high school & college. There were no diaries, yesteryear's handwritten blogs; the marginalia was all that remained from those days.
And thank God, I'd used pen! Pencil would have faded over the years.

So, thanks to Mr. St Clair who often asked us, "That book? Is that your book?". We responded in the affirmative. "Then", he commanded, "take up a pen and make sure it is your book."

My prior century marginalia is frankly ridiculous. But, it lays around in those books like a lounging teenager and makes those books my books.

I still take up a pen or pencil, at times of still present attitudes of the chastity of books, but I tend to be cheap with marginalia, certainly not as effusive nor as open as the "pretentious twit" days.

Great post, Sir.

Whisky Prajer said...

Teenage marginalia is vastly preferable to teenage diary composition. Your Mr. St. Clair was a wise man to nudge you toward the better heritage.