The Friday Fillip

It’s hard for some of us to read a book without feeling compelled to comment as the author’s argument unfolds. It may be that you scoff or cheer out loud. Or you may be one of those who read a book with a pencil or pen at the ready, leaving your remarks on the page to persist beside the printed marks, in which case you create what are known as marginalia.

It seems that this urge to annotate has existed for as long as Gutenberg’s gifts have been around — longer, indeed, as you see in the picture below, where an elegant hand points to a passage in a 13th century manuscript English bible. (You can click on this and other graphics here to see a larger version of the image.):

If you’re a marginalia maker, you’re in good company, historically speaking. Some of the greats have also felt obliged to emend. One of the most famous occasions of marginalia has to be the notation (in Latin) made by Pierre de Fermat as he was reading Arithmetica, here translated as: “I have a truly marvellous proof of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain,” which set off a 357 year long hunt for that proof.

Coleridge was an inveterate annotater. Indeed, he is credited with inventing the term marginalia. So valuable were his comments that his friends would lend him their books in hopes that they’d be returned all marked up. You can see some of his side-lights, in printed form, at least, in a volume on Coleridge’s collected works visible for the most part in Google Books. But for most of us, it’s not the latter day printed version of marginalia we want to see, but the scrawled originals. Here Google Image Search proves its worth: a search for “marginalia” turns up a host of lovely examples, some anonymous, others by the famous.

My own favourite, at the moment, (via Flickr), is a scrawled comment by William Blake that mars the title of the book he was reading, The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds:

It reads in part: “This Man was Hired to Depress Art. This is the Opinion of Will Blake: my Proofs of this Opinion are given in the following Notes.” You can read the rest of what Blake had to say — his “proofs” if you like — again thanks to Google Books.

But marginalia has its dark side. Which of us hasn’t borrowed a book from a library only to discover that in addition to the odd grease spot and marmalade stain there are impertinent notes left by some earlier patron who was either suffering from hypergraphia or the delusion that l’État, c’etait Lui. Although it may hurt your eyes, should you want to see examples of this vandalism, Cambridge University Library has been kind enough to provide them, at Marginalia and other crimes. I’ll give you just one illustration from their rogues gallery here, one that represents not only a destructive act but also one of my least favourite forms of “marginalia,” the dumb emphasis of the yellow highliter, that darling of the hard-pressed law student:

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