In MARGINALIA, side notes take center stage

There are a couple other gems-a poignant lament on our mortality evokes a scornful “everyone dies, so what?” and a passage replete with descriptive phrases yields the incredibly helpful note: “lots of adjectives.” Of course my favorite has to be the note on page 207, when, following around 206 pages of verse, the commentator underlines a phrase and adds an astute observation: “poetry!” Why yes, so it is.

One either loves or hates marginalia, and I’m sure no one loves marginalia quite as much as H.L. Jackson, who devotes an entire book to the subject. “Marginalia” is an incredibly well-researched and fascinating study of the history of writing in margins, starting from one of the most prolific and talented annotators, Samuel Coleridge, up through the present. But it is not just a summary or a dry historical narrative; it is a psychological interpretation of the relationships-obsessive, reverential, therapeutic-that many readers have with their books. Jackson observes that “a marked or annotated book traces the development of the reader’s self-definition in and by relation to the text,” and to track this development third hand, through other’s marginalia, is intensely interesting.

Jackson lays out some guidelines for what she considers “good” marginalia, including economy, wit, “an air of spontaneity” and “passionate expression as proof of engagement,” but then she admits that no matter how good the marginalia may be with regards to her standards, there will always be people who hate any sort of marks in their books. In her eighth chapter, Jackson relates an anecdote about a young boy at a Maurice Sendak book signing. When told by his father to hold out the book, the little boy looked at Sendak imploringly and said, “Please don’t crap up my book!”

Full of anecdotes and personal stories about more famous annotators, “Marginalia” is a book that can be picked up for an hour or two, when the mood strikes, then abandoned for a while. Its chapter divisions are very precise, and though Jackson does, at times, abandon herself to her “inner scholar” and present us with far too much historical information, the book actually does have forward momentum. Although heavily leaning toward one side in the eternal marginalia debate, Jackson does a fair job of presenting the opposing side-namely, that marginalia can be a way of defacing private property or conferring false authority. When reading a book, you are looking for the author’s voice, and to have his authority overwhelmed by an anonymous commentator is less than fair to both author and reader.

However, after finishing this book I was firmly in Jackson’s camp. So firmly, in fact, that I bought the Lucretius book, if only for the pleasure of making fun of whoever read this text before me. Yes, I bought it for the marginalia.