Monday, November 21, 2005

In defense of marginalia...
We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

~from the poem “Marginalia” by Billy Collins

I’ve always loved writing in the margins of my books, from my Little Golden copy of The Poky Little Puppy (likely “lacking in originality” written in purple crayon) to last week’s notations and underlined quotations in Kevin Canty’s Long Way Home (“if you give the devil a ride, he’s gonna end up driving”).

I used to date someone who was so obsessive about his books — not just first edition hardcovers, but also cheap paperbacks, comic books, and so on — that he once demonstrated to me how a book should be read so one would not crack the spine (held open slightly and turned from right to left depending on which page side you’re reading). The Bookmark King from the Land of No Touchy nearly had an anxiety attack when I (jokingly) told him I folded over a page to mark my space. It made him nuts that I read (my own books!) in the bathtub. And though he tried to be cool about it, he didn't even like leaving books around if there was a chance I might be able to get my negligent little hands on them. Had I actually written in any of his books, I think he would have gone stark raving mad.

I believe a good book should be enjoyed, read, marked, folded, stuffed into bags, loaned out to others, written in, highlighted, notated, and re-read. I buy used books often (Boomer’s is walking distance from my office) and love running across unexpected marginalia written by the book's previous owner. In a collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway, I found: “character turned to the wall = suicide.” Another, in what clearly was a student's copy of The Beautiful and the Damned, written next to a unidentified splotch (egg salad?), “Pigpen hasn’t washed his hands since 1999” and underneath, in different handwriting, “that’s f*cking disgusting.” And my favorite of all time, found in a battered paperback of The Life and Works of Herman Melville, “if all you had was a harpoon, the whole world would look like a whale.”

I think Billy says it best in the last lines from “Marginalia” -
...a few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil -
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet -
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love."


  1. I love used books too!! When the libraries used to have the old cards with peoples names on them I used to always look to see who the other people who read the book were. I hate when people write in library books though especially if it is profanity.

  2. I think A.S. has been stealing from Moby Dick. I admired a baby in the airport the other day, and he said, "Yeah, yeah, if you've got a hammer, everything's a nail." I told him that was the most asanine thing I'd ever heard. What, because I've got a uterus, everything's a baby?

    Speaking of Boomers, I found a first edition Henry James in there for $10. It was such a dreadful book, however (The Sacred Font), that I would have paid a million more for some notes in the margin. Also found an early edition illustrated Black Beauty for my niece, which she will get as soon as she has demonstrated she can read without destruction.

  3. I love that we both wound up purchasing the same book from the Friends of the Library sale. Have you, um, cracked the spine yet? (I have not...)

  4. Kel,

    Love the new format. Excellent orange color. It's easy to read. Good work.

  5. Love the Boomer's...she found me a lovely 1st edition MFK Fisher just in time for Michael's b-day this year.

    Ida, I have cracked the spine! It was in rough shape when I bought it're talking about the Zelda Fitzgerald bio, yes?

    Thanks, Jackie! It was a lot of work!

  6. Love is flowering … Find makes me beautiful "screwdriver" 1st Edition in time for Michael b hiwar is today.home owner loans


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