Modern Firsts On the margins

Paul Whitney
Amphora, The Alcuin Society
November 2008

Enthusiastic annotator Samuel T. Coleridge coined the word “marginalia,” defined by Wikipedia as “the general term for notes, scribbles, and editorial comments made in the margin of a book.” The study of marginalia is now a growing area of interest in the study of the history of the book. William Sherman’s recently published Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England estimates that 20 percent of early printed books in research libraries are annotated. Clearly a reader’s annotation made hundreds of years ago can provide added insight into a work and its time and easily engages the reader and the scholar.

The response of the reader to marginalia in a contemporary volume is much less likely to be positive. With the exception of notes made by the well-known identified reader, recent annotations are likely to be viewed by book dealers and collectors as defacement and by readers as a distraction. However, others champion such interventions as a form of transgressive discourse worthy of examination. These opposing views are described by H.J. Jackson in Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books as “A is for Annotator and B for Bibliophile (A thinks B might as well stand for Bore, and B that A is Anarchist).”

As a librarian and bibliophile at heart whose immediate response is to denounce marginalia, I find myself increasingly intrigued by the role it plays in how books are read. In large part this new interest was prompted by a public art project at the Vancouver Public Library by Kyla Mallett, which led to a gallery show at Artspeak in late 2006. Mallett’s show Marginalia comprised photographic images of annotations in vpl books.

In the accompanying exhibition catalogue An Art of the Weak: Marginalia, Writers and Readers, critic Denise Oleksijczuk succinctly describes the motivations of unsanctioned annotators (to use her phrase): “Some are spontaneous exclamations that make it possible to recover the mental processes of readers, others are mediated interventions by those who wish to communicate their ideas about the text to a later reader.” Mallett’s photographs clearly illustrate these differing motivations and provoke multiple responses in the reader/ viewer. The image reproduced on the cover (a half-page image used in the vpl banner triptych—the images in the Artspeak exhibition showed the full page of text) takes on a totally different meaning when one learns that the world-weary “?! Whatever” margin note appears in a book on teen suicide.

In a recent communiqué, Amphora’s esteemed editor described his initial irritation on discovering that a used copy of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London he had started reading had been annotated by a previous reader (in pink!). The irritation soon shifted to interest as he noted the sections the earlier reader found worthy of note. This led to the intriguing idea of building a collection of copies of the same title each annotated by a different reader. “Imagine,” he wrote, “looking for annotated copies in Third World countries; or comparing notations of copies from different generations;… or the triple crown—copies with multiple annotators.” A great if daunting idea which turns a book condition weakness into a strength and thereby establishes collecting parameters that by definition should be affordable. I will resist the temptation to try this out but recommend it to an energetic Amphora reader/collector. If anyone takes this on, or by chance has already been collecting with this focus, let us know how it’s going.

I’ll conclude by noting that my favourite marginalia are those made by authors themselves. This is truly “sanctioned” annotating and can be really useful. A favourite literary example is Daphne Marlatt correcting the recipe reproduced in the novel Ana Historic. If I ever get around to trying it out, I’ll be much more confident knowing Ms. Marlatt has intervened with pen in hand in the copy in my collection.

Paul Whitney is City Librarian at the Vancouver Public Library.