Marginalia is the act of writing in margins.
We underline (particularly if we are students or harried book-reviewers). Sometimes we scribble a note in the margin. But how few of us write marginalia in Erasmus's or Coleridge's sense, how few of us annotate with copious rigor. - George Steiner, The Uncommon Reader
- 1 A Definition
- 2 The Early Literate Elite
- 3 Forms of Marginalia
- 4 Mediatic Etymological Approach
- 5 What Is It About Books?
- 6 Marginalia as an Archaeology of Ideas
- 7 The Contemplation of Death
- 8 Future
The act of writing in margins is perhaps as old as the act of writing itself, but it has evolved in fascinating ways since the dawn of its inception. Still, a definition of marginalia for this project inheres a purpose. I wish to examine one of the the most fundamental media of human communication - the way that we interact with our own ideas through texts by writing on them. Ultimately, I wish to argue that true marginalia is dead. Since an argument of such a grand scale must include, admittedly, sweeping characterizations of the changes in societies over time, I am employing a broad definition of marginalia. I hope to use this project as a vehicle for understanding theoretical changes in the way that society archives its own thoughts through technology. And so this dossier is more of a structure for a debate than it is a specific rendering of a certain medium. With that said, I define marginalia as the act of writing in texts. Delineated below, this includes the most candid scribble as well as structured annotation and bibliographies. I invite and encourage expansion of this definition.
The Early Literate Elite
The very dawn of literacy was not, in fact, conducive to act of writing in margins. The very first instances of any kind of writing are generally agreed to have been for purposes of accounting (Robinson). The development of writing across the globe was a complex process, something that scholars heatedly debate today. Whichever mode of development you subscribe to (writing spread from a focal point to the rest of the globe or writing developed independently in different places), it is safe to say that much of the very early writings were used in society for much more concrete purposes than marginalia concerns itself with. That is, there is little need to discuss or debate accepted day-to-day practices that were often documented in early writings and as such, there was little need for marginalia. Also, the production of these scripts would not have even allowed for marginalia, as so many of them were made of stone or delicate animal skins and later, delicate papers. As societies expanded their use of documentation, the aspect of life that allowed literacy to flourish was religion. Religious dissent, such as Martin Luther's ninety-five theses in 1518, necessarily spread literacy throughout the world (Graff). Perhaps because that Bible itself was, for a long time, not printed in the vernacular, religious philosophy was expressed in writing, which opened the door to more expressive forms of writing.
The history of early literacy is richly complicated with the politics of libraries and means of production, for example in Ancient Rome. The evolution of scribal culture itself has its own important ancestry. But generally what was seen was that as literacy spread throughout Europe, circles of the literate elite developed their own "bookish culture" (Eisenstein). In each of these circles, individuals would become intimately familiar with a foundational set of readings, later to become a canon of literature. Although oftentimes the tensions between oral and print culture were difficult to resolve, these mean would also write their own scripts. Since the circles were so small, each person would be reading everyone's work and there was a very visible process of influence and reactionary thought. This is perhaps the early forms of many of the concepts Walter Benjamin outlines in his essay "Author as Producer" and the comparisons between the early and modern forms of authorship/production give credibility to inherent tensions when an author is a producer.
In most cases, although we can't know for sure, fellow literate elites would read and literally emend the works of their peers. The first marginalia emerged as ways of altering texts. This evolved from peer-to-peer communication into student-teacher interaction in large part because of the spread of education and schools (Jackson). Early students' notes became commonplace in much the same way that they are today - as a way for a student to physically engage with a text. There is some evidence of teachers instructing their students on how to correctly study by note-taking, most notable Erasmus's frequent addresses to his students. Research about learning styles in more recent years might lend answers to questions about how this slow adaptation of student marginalia has affected cognition, but because there is little existing evidence to work with from two thousand years ago, this domain has been largely untouched.
As marginalia became more widely used and spread out from the elite literate circles, the structure and precedence of early margin-users like Erasmus, Gabriel Harvey, John Dee, and John Evelyn, shaped the way the public would begin to write in texts. The scholarly etiquette of marginalia was defined by a vast majority of great thinkers and a significant amount of modern scholarship is dedicated to understanding and interpreting the marginalia of great thinkers. It was Erasmus and later, Samuel Taylor Coleridge who played the most significant roles in shaping scholarly marginalia simply because they stressed its important and left a great deal of their marginalia behind.
Forms of Marginalia
The forms of marginalia are as wide-ranging as the users who create them. The following forms are the most common and easily categorized types of marginalia. This is not to say, however, that marginalia is this simple. Indeed, a great fascination with marginalia is its varying form. It is also imperative, although not a large part of the greater argument I'm making, to note that the forms of marginalia depend on their physical medium. That is, changes the paper market change the way readers and writers have written in margins. At different point throughout the history of paper, the medium has been so costly that publication is a great accomplishment and therefore other authors would sometimes write whole stories in the margins of a colleague's book just to be published in some way. The idea of palimpsest also brings up questions about changes in paper because the idea of erasing text and writing over it (i.e. using paper like you would use a blackboard) subverts the goal of marginalia. We realize, then, than marginalia relies on a sense of permanence of the text it is on. The history of paper could lend much to this discussion, but I ultimately want to pursue a more theoretical discussion about society's use and interaction with ideas through marginalia and therefore I am focusing on more general claims about the history of reading.
The most popular form of marginalia is the kind that readers do in private - it's that process by which we talk to ourselves through fragmented and improperly formatted sentences scribbled on the pages before us. The best description of this kind of marginalia is the one we provide from experience, for the kind of notes we take are the kind of notes that make up the common marginalia. It is important to note that the act of taking notes has become extremely casual as literacy has spread throughout the world. There was a time when the act of reading a text called for an empathy and concentration that we very rarely bring to texts today.
The best record of common marginalia is in library books, although those who choose to write in library books, who haven't forgotten that they are library books, are aware that that book with circulate to another reader at some point. The most intriguing thing about marginalia in library books is that it is highly discouraged, yet extremely insightful. No one has yet done a thorough analysis of a library's marginalia to understand why readers write in certain books. For example, it is so fascinating that the Occult section of the New York Public Library is disproportionately populated by books that have been written all over. If we assume this is intentional, does this indicate that the public wants to engage in debates about religion? Or is it a taboo topic that is best debated through anonymous scribbles in library books?
Emendation is textual alteration. In terms of marginalia, this is the physical act of correcting a manuscript. The modern reader and writer most likely has little experience with this kind of marginalia, as computer technology has drastically changed the very idea of literary correction. Emendation, in its original sense, is a kind act, but one that is fundamental to a proper academic discourse. Emendation among different people requires different minds to interact with a single text, to agree or disagree, and ultimately to broaden their respective views. Technological changes force us to ask whether true emendation and dialogue exist today (see below, "The Contemplation of Death").
Scholia, Glosses, and Rubrics
Scholia are the ancient forms of marginalia. They are grammatical or explanatory notes on ancient texts, written in the margin, that often explain relevant historical events or other literature the author deems relevant. Scholia have been present on the earliest publications of the Bible, classical literature, and legal code. Scholia are closely related to glosses, which are notes that explain obscure or foreign words and which will make it the glossary of a difficult text. Scholia and glosses are mainly structural forms of marginalia, and could be considered to include rubrics, which is the early name for headings in books that signal structural changes to a reader (Jackson). The important aspect to note here is that scholia, glosses, and rubrics are made by the author, not the reader. It is instructive marginalia that is nonetheless important for a reader's understanding especially of ancient or foreign texts.
Annotation, like marginalia itself, is a broad term and encompasses many different types. It can be used by the author in a structured way like scholia, glosses, and rubrics are used or it can be an outside addition to a text, like the added notes of great thinker to a text. Annotation is often used in instructional texts to explain the thought process of the reader, as in a medical or legal article. The important distinction between annotation and other forms of marginalia is that it is published with intent and rarely includes candid notes in a margin. Famously annotated texts by thinkers that are not the author usually annotate the text with intent, to give a concrete analysis of the given text. It is a staged technique.
Footnotes & Citation
Footnotes and citations have been used historically in the same ways in which we know them today. They are used by the author to give credit to the sources for their inspiration and explain the process of their thinking. This is interesting, however, because the goal of footnotes and citation has a parallel with the purpose of the common form of readers' marginalia. That is, citations are used to demonstrate the way that an author has come to produce the text at hand by listing references ad suggesting new ones. This creative process in writing the text is the end product to what lay readers are doing when they make candid notes in the margins of their own personal books. I'm arguing here that marginalia, in a general sense, is the documentation of the way in which readers interact with texts. But citations given by an author are the organized layouts of how the author was once a reader. There seems to be a cycle - while a reader is absorbing a text, he/she will write notes in the margins to help process the new information. Then, if the reader decides to put these newly created, reactionary comments into writing, he/she will document that process through the use of citation, which other readers will then use to spark their own creative processes.
Mediatic Etymological Approach
I am employing, here, a mediatic etymological approach to studying marginalia as a medium and because it is a unique way of studying dead media, it deserves some comment. Mediatic etymology is the way of examining dead media in relation to their modern-day legacies. That is, isolating a modern medium or technique, and tracing its origins to a form of extinct early form of it. I am fascinated by the intricate process by which a reader takes notes in a text and this project is an attempt to trace the early forms of marginalia. In the end, I've found that the kind of notes we take in margins today are situated in an entirely different literary and educational context than they once were and as a result, we are not writing the same kind of notes we once used to write. I propose that the kind of marginalia we create today represents a serious shift in values from the kind of marginalia that characterizes earlier societies.
What Is It About Books?
Marginalia as an Archaeology of Ideas
documenting ideas through changing technologies