Read Between the Lines– and Above, Around, and All Over Them, Too: Making the Case for Book Marginalia

Written by: Elisabeth Bienvenue

Source: Elisabeth Bienvenue

Annotations, self-reminders, markups, marginalia: whatever you want to call them, people have very strong opinions about whether or not we should scribble on the pages of our books.

If you ask English majors whether or not they write in their books, many would probably say that they do. Writing in the margins allows us to synthesize information, draw connections between other texts, write silly little memos that only we would understand, and more. Those same English majors would likely rejoice in the usefulness— and often silliness— of marginalia, but admit that the discovery of a used textbook filled with two hundred pages of pure orange highlighter and bubbly gel pen might seem a bit… overboard.

The main argument against marginalia is the idea that books should be left in pristine state for others to read. Library books ideally fall under this category, with the general public understanding that books should return to the library unchanged from the time the reader took them home. Certainly, borrowed archival materials are under a stricter DO NOT ALTER Under Any Circumstances YesThatAbsolutelyIncludesPencilToo category.

I absolutely understand the need and desire to preserve this clean state of publication pristineness. After all, when a reader decides to keep their pages free of pen markings and Dorito stains, they are making an aesthetic choice. Yet, the more I read, and even despite my aversion to orange highlighter (both the Sharpie and Dorito kind), I am convinced that marginalia is one of the most essential reading and writing practices in my life.

I love marginalia mostly because nothing is off limits when it comes to annotation; nothing is too much. Marginalia is unique to each of us, and it helps us understand material in the context of our own lives and learning styles. When we write in our books, we write down our unique perceptions. And, most importantly, underlining or circling things helps us return to specific lines later. The ideas we have between these lines can turn to ideas for books or novels. Or, they can just stay as fleeting, lovely, illegible thoughts– that’s plenty good enough for me.

I first learned to embrace marginalia when I took Introduction to Literary Studies as a sophomore at UConn. My instructor enlarged two pages from a novel we were reading and distributed them to all of us students. Our assignment was to fill up the entire page with annotations and commentary. Whether we turned in underlines, scribbles, or circles, our professor wanted to read it all. She wanted the text to be accessible to us, and she wanted us to make textual connections to other works and the world. Our pages ended up being much deeper than just scribbles; most of us created giant tangential paragraphs relating the events in the novel to the book’s broader themes of police brutality, racial injustice, familial love, temporality, and more. This assignment prompted us all to write between the lines as we continued our careers as students of literature.

Source: Elisabeth Bienvenue

But marginalia is not just an essential tool for readers, it is also an essential teaching tool. Some of the most productive class discussions during my undergraduate career happened when a professor  first arrived to class carrying bundles of tattered, jacket-less, blue pen-filled books, a sure testament to their love for their field and for their students. Their marginalia helped them understand the books, and they get to share that wisdom with us in turn.

I think reading other people’s marginalia also helps us learn about the different reading styles of others. As a History and English student, I love the idea that marginalia keeps readers in conversation with each other form years. For example, George Eliot published Adam Bede in 1859, an anonymous person from the used book store wrote their marginalia in 19xx, and here I am in 2021 getting to see what they thought about the text. Each of these books becomes a historical micro-world. 

On a personal note, my beloved grandfather, Harold Robinson, taught me a lesson in the beauty of annotations. Papa had one of the most impressive book collections I’ve ever seen, and he always carried a pen or two in his shirt pocket in case he needed to write on a notepad or in a book. When he passed away in June 2019, I started to read his books, all of which contained his annotations.

I’m not sure why, but one of the first books I picked up from his shelf was The Revenant. This book’s gore and popularity didn’t really fit either of our reading styles— I usually gravitated more towards poetry and he usually read things that he owned in his complete Library of America collection, but I decided to read it anyways. Though Papa usually wrote brief one-word phrases in the margins of most of his books, his notes in The Revenant were different. Instead of writing words, he simply underlined the names of every new character and place name that appeared in the book. If a character reappeared on page 70 that hadn’t been spoken about since page 9, he would write “see page 9” to remember the context of the character’s introduction.

Source: Elisabeth Bienvenue

I was struck with the simplicity of the annotation device he created– it seemed like such a simple process. But, I started to follow in my Papa’s example, and it helped me to become a better reader. Despite my love for reading, I’ve always struggled with retaining names and places in fiction. My eyes tend to flutter around the page, and no matter how hard I try, I inevitably miss details here and there. By underlining names, I now put deliberate action into retaining the names.

It’s hard for me to sit and not know whether his decision to underline the names was because this was a reading tool he had used his whole life, or if it was a memory tool he used to retain names as he noticed that the vines of dementia were slowly growing into his wonderfully literary mind. But even after his death, his marginalia taught me a new way to read and remember things, and I am so grateful for it. It’s his handwriting and his mind working through mine.

All this being said, I think the decision to annotate a text is still a personal choice. If it works for you, I’m so glad. But, if the marginalia I describe sounds like literary sacrilege and you’d still rather use sticky notes, bookmarks, useful little Book Darts, or nothing at all, I hope you go for it. I hope everybody reads their books exactly how they want to. For me, I’ll still say: three cheers for glorious marginalia.

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