A few years ago, I picked up an old copy of a biography on Emily Bronte. Inside the front cover, a woman had inscribed her name and dated it over thirty years ago. And throughout the book, she’d underlined her favorite passages. I don’t know anything about this woman except she shared a love for the Brontes.
Books of mine are filled with my own underlines, and flashes of ideas that have come to me when I didn’t have any other paper on hand.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines marginalia as, “marginal notes or embellishments (as inside a book) “.
However, this succinct description does not dwell into the heart of the practice.
Coined by Samuel Coleridge, the first known use of the term is found in a 1819 edition of Blackwood’s Magazine. He wrote once, “”A book, I value. I reason & quarrel with as with myself when I am reasoning.”
At times, Coleridge even drolly criticized his own, earlier lines he came across. “Hang me, if I know or ever did know the meaning of them.”
Years later, Edgar Allen Poe titled many of his own articles, Marginalia.
However, the practice of scribbling comments inside books goes back much further. Arguably, the most famous example is Fermat’s last theorem.
The most common form of marginalia are the underlines, scribbles, and comments a reader makes. While marking the book, they inadvertently reveal little aspects of themselves. What lines of dialogue made them laugh, what bits of prose affected them emotionally, or made them think.
Other readers debate the writer’s theories with their own points of view on a subject.
Besides commentary, the sides of pages have been used by writers to scribble their own works. Whilst in prison, Voltaire used the margins of a book to pen his play, Oedipus.
On the eve of his execution, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote this poem inside his bible:
“Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us nought but age and dust;
Which in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days!
And from which grave, and earth, and dust,
The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.’
Many are aghast at the thought of writing inside a book. It’s almost an unsaid taboo. Yet for others, it is a way to collect their thoughts, to share, and to express.