Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books
Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books

Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books

by H. J. Jackson

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From Pierre de Fermat to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Graham Greene, readers have related to books through the notes they write in the margins. In this pioneering book -- the first to examine the phenomenon of marginalia -- H.J. Jackson surveys an extraordinary range of annotated books to explore the history of marginalia, the forms they take, the psychology that underlies them, and the reactions they provoke.

Based on a study of thousands of books annotated by readers both famous and obscure over the last three centuries, this book reveals the intensity of emotion that characterizes the process of reading. For hundreds of years, readers have talked to other people in the margins of their books-not only to authors, but also to friends, lovers, and future generations.

With an infectious enthusiasm for her subject, Jackson reflects on the cultural and historical value of writing in the margins, examines works that have invited passionate annotation, and presents examples of some of the most provocative marginalia. Imaginative, amusing, and poignant, this book will be treasured by -- and maybe even annotated by -- anyone who cares about reading.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300129533
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 01/01/2001
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 459 KB

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Chapter One


The physical features of books have changed really very little since 1700, at least from the annotator's point of view. It is true that formats changed, from the handsome folios of the seventeenth century to the neat octavos of the eighteenth, and from the luxury quartos of the Romantic period to the triple-deckers of the Victorian era and the closely printed paperbacks of the mid-twentieth century. Printing technology passed from monotype to stereotype and linotype and so to computer composition. Paper shortages led to experiments with wood pulp and other substitutes for rag content, with serious and irreversible consequences. In terms of layout, the phasing out of printed marginal glosses in favor of the footnote—a development of the early eighteenth century-and the still unresolved rivalry between the footnote and the endnote have no doubt influenced the annotator's practice, as has the generally diminishing provision of empty space between lines, in margins, and in flyleaves. Books nevertheless continue to present themselves in a familiar shape. They have covers, half-titles and title pages, front and back endpapers, and chapter divisions that leave convenient blanks at the bottoms and tops of certain pages. Annotators throughout the period can be seen to make distinctly different, though standard, use of these various spaces—that is to say, custom and perhaps physical necessity dictate appropriate kinds of use for separate areas in the book. In this chapter I shall describe the typical physical features of manuscript annotation, subordinating content as far aspossible. Content, however, is a force of nature: you can drive it out with a pitchfork, but it will soon find a way back. I have not even attempted to suppress it altogether.

    All the front area of a book, from the inside of the front cover to the beginning of the text proper, presents an opportunity to provide introductory material, and the first impulse of any owner appears to be the impulse to stake a claim. Ownership marks are far and away the commonest form of annotation. The inside front cover, whether it is the paste-down of the endpaper or the actual verso of the cover itself as in a modern paperback, is the traditional place for a bookplate. Presentation inscriptions there or on the title page are likewise statements about ownership not written by the owner. More usual, however, is the owner's signature or initials, generally to be found on the top right-hand corner of the first free page, whether it is a flyleaf or the title page. An owner's initials constitute the minimum of annotation.

    The marginalia of children are instructive, and a case can be made for their revealing fundamental readers' attitudes in a particularly raw state. Before they can read, children may scribble—pretending to write—or draw pictures in books that come their way, but as soon as they can read and write, they write their names, often over and over again in the one book. A work in which the annotations are conveniently dated 1700, exactly the starting point for this study, a copy of Claude Mauger's French Grammar, contains no notes whatever in the text, and no notes having any connection with French grammar, but voluminous writings on the endpapers: the owner, Grizel Baillie, writes her own name several times with various spellings ("Grisall," "Grisell," "Grissell"), and her address, and an upper-case and lower-case alphabet, and a lot of fists, and four copies of a short letter to her cousin—all with the same wording, so the practice must have been for penmanship. Such behavior was and continues to be perfectly normal.

    One of the rare cases I have been fortunate enough to find of a barely literate but, on the evidence, adult reader shows similar features. Listed in the Bibliography under "Wesley," it is actually a heavily used collection of English and American sermons of the later eighteenth century. All the notes are in pencil and by the same unformed hand. One or two notes in the body of the text ("Salvation" as the subject of one of the sermons, for instance) indicate that the owner understood its contents, but practically all the writing is on the front and back flyleaves and endpapers and has nothing to do with the sermons. There is the standard ownership claim, in this case a list of names, apparently because the book was a family treasure: "Mary an Banks | Martha Banks | Eliza Banks | William Banks | Sarah Banks | William Henry Banks." And then there are miscellaneous memoranda: a list of prices of household goods, such as matches at two cents, lard at eight cents, cotton at five cents; some scribbles; some figures; a bit of verse mildly risque for early America; and a declaration of love—"my Dear Mister Brown i love you With all my heart and i Hope you do the same"—that seemingly could not be suppressed. These are readers with little experience of books who have not yet learned the customary use of different areas for annotation, and whose very irregularity proves the rule. For the library reader such volumes are a lucky dip—you never know what may turn up.

    A marvelous fictional example of the lucky dip into the mind, via the marginalia, of an immature reader is the experience of the narrator, Lockwood, in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. In his bedchamber, unable to sleep, Lockwood examines a few musty old books with Catherine Earnshaw's name in them:

Catherine's library was select, and its state of dilapidation proved it to have been well used, though not altogether for a legitimate purpose; scarcely one chapter had escaped a pen-and-ink commentary—at least, the appearance of one—covering every morsel of blank that the printer had left. Some were detached sentences; other parts took the form of a regular diary, scrawled in an unformed, childish hand. At the top of an extra page (quite a treasure, probably, when first lighted on) I was greatly amused to behold an excellent caricature of my friend Joseph,—rudely yet powerfully sketched. An immediate interest kindled within me for the unknown Catherine, and I began forthwith to decipher her faded hieroglyphics.

Besides the supporting evidence that this passage provides of the use of books for scrap paper, continuing into the nineteenth century, Catherine's marginalia illustrate the value of marginalia as a literary device. In Wuthering Heights, they are a means for introducing a new voice in a particularly direct and personal way, a means for securing interest for Catherine through the reaction of the narrator, and a means for obliquely indicating the distance between them—as a respectable man, he is rather shocked by her flouting of "legitimate" usage. They also trigger Lockwood's dramatic dreams about her. But they are a credible reflection of reality as well as a useful narrative technique.

    The Osborne Collection of children's books includes enough annotated books to show patterns that are constant over time, in the relatively stable experience of child readers, as well as some striking individual aberrations. On the whole, preschool children are not real annotators. Coloring black-and-white illustrations does not count. Writing notes in response to a text appears to be a habit acquired at school. Very young children who can read and write use their books rather as spare paper for drawing or writing practice, and confine themselves to the blank leaves at the front and back. A charming case from the late eighteenth century is a copy of John Aikin and Anna Laetitia Barbauld's Evenings at Home. The first owner, Hannah Andrews, wrote her name in ink on the front flyleaves and opening pages of the text. A later owner used the back endpaper for her own writing practice, first copying the name "Hannah Andrews" several times and then finally in triumph writing her own name, Lucy Weldron or Meldron, and adding, "I am much improved in my writing since I wrote that ugly Hannah Andrews." Elvie Favet's copy of The Babes in the Basket, a gift from her aunt, is decorated front and back with delicate watercolor paintings of birds, mostly owls in pink and blue.

    Under instruction, children learn to mark the text conservatively, and to use the endpapers for institutionally approved, standard kinds of note-taking. Florence Nightingale's copy of Mrs. Trimmer's New and Comprehensive Lessons, Containing a General Outline of the Roman History (1818) has Nightingale's autograph in pencil on a flyleaf (p. - 1) and penciled marks—an "x" or an "A"—at the ends of chapters to show how far she had got with her reading. A copy of A. E. Marty's Ontario High School Reader (1919) that was passed down in the Clements family displays, immediately upon opening, the signatures of successive child owners; a drawing that is surely a portrait of the class teacher; and a list of reading assignments, with page references—all in ink—besides a library bookplate giving the name of the donor, herself presumably the last of the original signatories (fig. 2). More advanced versions of these school readers and similar textbooks do contain manuscript notes within the text, especially definitions of terms, solutions for mathematical problems, and some notes from class, such as the birth and death dates of an author, or comment on a specific passage. Carrie Rae's copy of Five Longer Poems (1927), a fifth-form textbook, includes interlinear and marginal notes that gloss words like "wassail-bowl" ("beverage") and paraphrase lines of the text. She also attempted some of the questions proposed at the back of the book, explaining the appeal of Wordsworth's poem "Michael," for example, thus: "It tells us of their simple life & sets an example for us by showing us that even although Luke was well brought up there were things in the city which tended to contribute to his disgrace. It is so original, different, love for his son." Historians of education and of criticism could work with material like this to ascertain, not merely by retrospective reminiscence and anecdote, what went on in the classrooms of a given place at a given time.

    Besides these representative examples of normal use one sometimes encounters oddities like the Osborne Collection copy of Tommy Trip's Valentine Gift (1785), which contains an account of the origin of St. Valentine's Day, together with improving moral tales and illustrations that are now colored in. The neat inscription in ink on the front pastedown reads, "Edwin Griffith | the gift of his wife | Eliza Noble | 1790"; to it an untidy child's hand has added "and three"—meaning, not 1790 but 1793. On the same page in the same hand are two further notes, "March 4th 1793 | a nice book" and "Fred brought me this for Easter." There are no reader's marks in the text, but the back flyleaves (pp. + 1-+ 5) are filled with notes that reaffirm ownership and provide a vivid impression of the owner's circumstances and feelings. Eliza Noble was a playmate, the play "wife" of young Edwin. These are the notes in full: "Edwin Griffith the Gift of his wife—March 4 1793 Edwin G[.] I shall keep this book as Long as it is in being. I shall show it to my wife every time she comes here—. My Grandmother and my Aunt is here playing at cards just by me—. Mrs Noble is at home with Eliza Noble for she has got the whooping cough and cannot come here which I am very sorry about, for she is a charming girl[.] I hope none read this for it is sad[.] Nonscence I am going to bed it is nine a Clock—Farewell[.] This now given to me at 10 a Clock[.]"

    Edwin Griffith is like other young annotators in using the blank leaves in his book for writing paper without reference to the text. He is remarkable, in a way that makes one aware of the internal or external restrictions that usually apply, in declaring an opinion about the "nice" book, and even more so in using the book to display the emotions of the moment. I wish I knew what became of Edwin Griffith. I suspect he may have been set already on the road leading to the fanaticisms of Chapter Six. Nevertheless, the point should be made that although the content of his notes is unusual, the way he uses the blank spaces of his book is not: the introductory inscription and assertion of ownership are where convention dictates that they should be, and the personal notes at the back are in a way an extension of the initial assertion. Like Samuel Maude, he affirms his property rights as he turns the book into a diary.

    When they go beyond the basic declaration of ownership, child and adult readers alike tend next to fill in details of acquisition. Tradition gives children more scope than adults, who are expected to be drily factual, and brief. An adult owner often supplies an address, a date, and the name of the source—bookseller, for instance, or book sale. Ann Owen Hay's copy of Lambert's Little Henry (1823) also gives an address on the front flyleaf. It was written at first in pencil, and later overtraced in ink as a permanent record: "Ann Owen Hay | Hadley | Barnet | Middlesex | England | Great Britain I Europe | P. Ocean [sic] | World | Air | Nothing." The first note on the front flyleaf of an eighteenth-century school edition of Cato reads, "William Curzon Is My Name And England Is My Nation Breedon Is My Dwelling Place And Heaven Is My Habitation. July. ye. 19th. 1737[.]" (When I was at school we completed the rhyme with "destination," but "habitation" could be a legitimate variant.) Dates, like addresses, are open to adaptation under circumscribed conditions. Hence William Makepeace Thackeray dated his battered "Collection of English Poems," when he was at school in the 1820s, with a typically ritualistic list, counting down the days "to the holidays" from "Only 2 weeks" to "Only 13 days" and so on down to one.

    William Curzon goes on to provide the next indispensable thing—still reinforcement of the ownership claim—as the second note in his Cato, further down the page: "Steal Not This Book For Fear Of Shame For Here You See The Oners Name William Curzon His Book July ye. 19 1737[.]" Iona and Peter Opie divide such anathemas into two categories, "book protection" and "book desecration." A longer version of this one is the first in their collection. They do not have the one Robert Odell of Petrolia, Ontario, used in his Third Reader in 1897, and perhaps it is a colonial creation: "Steal not this book for fear of life for the owner has a big jackknife." Adult readers like Joshua Earnshaw, who acquired a second-hand copy of Joseph Townsend's Physician's Vade Mecum in 1824, may prefer more sophisticated wording (Earnshaw adopts the Latin "Hic Nomen pono | Quia Librum perdere nolo"—"I put this name down because I do not wish to lose the book"), but the impulse is the same. Holbrook Jackson documents traditional anathemas already in use as early as the twelfth century.

    Possession established, owners often begin the process of customizing their books by introducing in the preliminary blank spaces the sort of material that they might have encountered in the apparatus of textbooks. At the most mundane level, the owner of a composite volume containing several short items—plays, poems, sermons, or tracts—may provide a manuscript Table of Contents. (The list of readings shown in figure 2 provides that sort of guide.) The British Library contains many books annotated by John Mitford, who was a clergyman, a classical scholar, editor of the Gentleman's Magazine from 1834 to 1850, and a lover of English literature. Mitford was systematic. He marked text in his books sparingly, but at the front he always carefully wrote in his name and the date of acquisition, and then filled the opening pages with pasted-in clippings from booksellers' catalogues or extracts from periodicals; bibliographical notes in his own neat, small hand, in ink; and passages about the book or the author, copied out from other books. In his Rabelais, for example, he noted in 1812, "'Garagantuas is decisively Francis I and Henry II is Pantagruel, and Charles V, Picrocole. Rabelais imitated in many passages, the Literae Virorum Obscurorum.' Warton's Pope V. iv. p. 273. and see the Preface p. xxxvi."

    Not scholars or ex-scholars only, but readers of all sorts similarly collected, in the front of their books, materials from other books that could be used as aids and reinforcements for the reading of the book at hand. Notes of this kind are not original, but they indicate by the principles of selection and by the trouble taken to preserve them the frame of mind that the reader considered appropriate in the approach to the work. John Keats's friend Richard Woodhouse used some of the front pages of a copy of Keats's Poems (1817) that is now at the Huntington Library for a collection of quotations, some from Keats and some from other authors, of a kind that might be appropriate as epigraphs—"Verses from which the soul would never wean," for instance. His Endymion (1818) also begins with short passages quoting Keats himself on the nature of poetry, as well as other authors whose words can be construed as tributes to him, all by way of psychological preparation for the reader—like the old editions of Shakespeare that begin with poetical testimonials; like modern publishers' blurbs. With less piety, an irritated reader of Jonathan Edwards's Dissertation Concerning Liberty and Necessity (1797) provides an epigraph from Milton on the title page, right after the author's name: "So spoke the Fiend, and with NECESSITY, / — excused his dev'lish deeds."

    Generally more personal are the expressions of opinion that readers put down on the opening pages of their books. These appear to be intended, normally, either to serve as an aid to memory for future reference, or—like their equivalents in print—to make introductions, to act as a mediator between the text and later readers. Francis Hargrave, a lawyer and legal scholar whose collection of annotated books was purchased for the British Museum in 1813, patiently explains the bibliographical status of his 1614 edition of John Selden's Titles of Honour on a front flyleaf, and gives his reasons for keeping this copy:

In 1631 Mr. Selden published a folio volume with the same title; & stiled it in the title page a second edition. It is divided into two parts, as this first edition is. But the first edition is scarce a third of the second in point of quantity; & the latter is in great measure a newly written work. Yet this edition has its use. It contains the author's first thoughts. Some matter here, though of importance, is omitted in the second edition; & an instance of this may be found in the author's account of the beginning of feuds in chap. 8. of 2d. part in this edition. Besides this edition has the advantage of various indexes none of which are in the second. The dedication & preface to this edition are different from those in the other. F. H. 28. Aug. 1803.

    Hargrave's note combines scholarship and personal judgment in a way that is typical of conscientious readers before and since—though the proportions vary. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle endorses many of the volumes in his collection of books about spiritualism and parapsychological experience with a signed note on the title page: of L. Margery Bazett's After-Death Communications (1918), for example, he says, "A very useful little book with many good cases entirely beyond Criticism." When you open the American poet Witter Bynner's copy of Dante's lyric sequence The New Life you find an original poem, "Perhaps they laughed at Dante in his youth," which he must have written after reading the book, but which he chose to put at the front. It is a sensitive, striking, and strikingly appropriate response to the text. If he gave even a moment's thought to the location of the note, he would have said to himself that the front of the book was where such a response belonged, that's where one would expect to find such a thing; but back of that thinking is a long tradition of prefatory apparatus. The front flyleaves of Coleridge's books also often contain a general assessment, sometimes in the form of a warning. This practice he adopted quite early, for example in a copy of Gerhard Voss's Poeticarum institutionum, libri tres (1647): "I have looked thro' this book with some attention, April 21, 1803—, and seldom indeed have I read a more thoroughly worthless one."

    In the body of the text, different functions are assigned to different spaces. The top margin, naturally, is for "heads"—in a printed (or for that matter manuscript) book, the section or chapter title that tells you where you are, or, more narrowly, the subject heading that summarizes the content of the page. Readers as a rule put their own heads at the outer edges of the page, top right on the recto, top left on the verso. In books printed since 1700, the bottom margin, the foot of the page, is commonly reserved for footnotes. Readers occasionally mimic the conventions of print by putting footnote cues in the text that are keyed to their own notes below—Alexander Pope's copy of Boileau is a case in point. This practice, however, appears not to be common. Some readers put their subject heads at the foot of the page—as long as it's always in the same part of the page so that you don't have to scan the whole page at every turning, it does not make much difference whether it's top or bottom—but most of them use the bottom margin simply for overflow from the sides. When the side margins are narrow, readers have to use what space they can find elsewhere, not only the bottoms of pages but also the odd bits of lines left blank at the ends and beginnings of paragraphs. The one thing they hardly ever do is trespass into the text itself to write heads or commentary between the lines: that space is reserved for a special kind of reader's aid, the interlinear gloss or word by word translation of the kind I mentioned earlier in my account of schoolbooks. (If there is no room for words between the lines, however, readers' aids will spill out into the margin.)

    The side margins, then, are universally, in English-language books, the favored place for the reader's running commentary on the text. Because most of the rest of this study will have to do with notes of this kind and from these spaces, I offer only brief samples here.

    Readers' marginal comments range from hasty marks to extended essays. The most basic marks are signs of attention, a line across the margin or running vertically down it, or underlining of the text itself. These are often coupled with a fist or an asterisk, or one of the conventional symbols indicating approval or disapproval: the check, exclamation mark, cross, or question mark. Multiples are used to heighten the effect, five exclamation marks expressing perhaps the maximum of astonishment. Like other systems of notation this one is tried and true, easy to use, readily understood, but crude and unrefined. Now and again, for private purposes or for greater discrimination in communication, readers experiment with systems of their own. When Coleridge was invited to comment on William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1818, he tried introducing a ranking system: "N.B. ?? signifies, It gave me pleasure. ??, still greater—??, and greater still, ??, in the highest degree, ??, in the lowest. We do not know whether he used these marks on the work itself; we rather hope not.

    The fate of that copy of Innocence and Experience is not recorded, but a large part of the manuscript of William Godwin's play Abbas, with Coleridge's commentary dating from 1801, has recently come to light, and there also he adopted a set of symbols for common problems, "false or intolerable English," "flat or mean," "common-place book Language," and "bad metre." He did the same for a copy of Joan of Arc that he annotated in 1814. Joan is an epic poem, revolutionary in its politics, that had been jointly written by Coleridge and his brother-in-law Robert Southey and published in 1796. Nearly twenty years later, with a history of difficult family relations between them, Coleridge devised and used a shorthand system to criticize Southey's part of the poem:

S.E. means Southey's English, i.e. no English at all.
N. means Nonsense.
J. means discordant Jingle of sound—one word rhyming or half-rhyming to another proving either utter want of ears, or else very long ones.
L.M. = ludicrous metaphor.
I.M. = incongruous metaphor.
S. = pseudo-poetic Slang, generally, too, not English.

In this case the very terms of the system, application aside, convey the settled hostility of the annotator: in contrast to the Blake one, there is no room here for commendation. But schemes like these are devised for particular occasions and seem not to last. Every time you invent a custom-made system, you have to explain it somewhere, so that it is liable to be more trouble than it's worth. There may be annotators with private codes that they used over and over again, but I have not come across them.


What People are Saying About This

Anthony Grafton

A lucid and lively foray into the history of reading. Attacking a formidably long period and a remarkably wide range of materials, H.J. Jackson sheds new light on literary and intellectual history by showing how a diverse range of readers have reacted to and interacted with printed books. Jackson's book has no rivals and few counterparts.
— From the author of The Footnote

Sven Birkerts

Jackson zooms in with forensic assiduity on the now no longer marginal subject of the physical annotation of books. Her study is an utterly fascinating blend of evidence and implication; we take away an almost visceral appreciation of the dynamics of reading.

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