This New Yorker story has released a firestorm of comment, so of course I have to join in or look utterly out of touch. The fact that it comments on The Pages Project which I bleated about last month, does count in my defense though. The Oxford Marginalia Group exists on Facebook only, and this link will (I hope) take you there. They show hundreds of examples.

Salon gets in on the act and refers to Tim Parks’ 3 December NYRB post in which he tells about making his students make a marginal annotation on every page while they read a book. This apparently increased comprehension noticeably. I guess that constitutes a good justification for the practice. Paving books (writing the translation of unfamiliar words just above their occurrence in the text) was something we language-learners did at school and university, and it did at least prove that we were awake while reading our assigned texts (often difficult with 19th century German literature). Paving did mean that next time through the book you didn’t have to reach for the dictionary all the time. Now maybe this was a bad thing as far as language learning is concerned: probably looking up the word again and again drums it into the recalcitrant brain. I’m not sure — but it certainly sped up the process of revision. There does, to me at least, appear to be a link between writing and learning. I find that the only way to memorize a poem nowadays is to write it out by hand — and I’m sorry to say that doesn’t always work either.

Erik Kwakkel appears to have an entire blog devoted to marginalia in medieval books showing many charming examples. The video accompanying my post Incunabula at Cambridge showed several examples of marginalia, which are becoming important to bibliographical scholars now that they have pretty much done with the identification of books, printers etc. from the early years of book manufacture. As one researcher said “Now we’ve done that, we are having to look inside the books and actually read them”. They are now focussing more on the individual life story of an old book: who owned it, where it may have travelled, when it was rebound etc., much of the evidence for which can be found in marginal annotations and other hand-written markings.

In the meantime I remain reluctant to mark up my books. The furthest I go is to make notes (in pencil) on the back endpaper or a suitable blank near there.