Marginalia and the Heart of Writing Inside Books

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. 
  Voltaire
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28 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I can’t write in a book. I just can’t. It comes from the days when I had to sell my school books to buy new ones (the price of private schooling when you can barely afford it) and any writing on them would lower the price.

    So much so that I never own a highlighter because the idea of using them on any book (school book or otherwise) just horrified me. I prefer my books to be (inside the cover at least) as pristine as possible.

    But that’s just me. Of course, my notebooks are full of scratches, notes on the margins and the like.

  2. Totally understandable, Ralfast. Many people prefer their books to remain pristine.

  3. I have a problem with writing in a book, they are too pretty, the only way I would do it, is if I own more than one copy of the book. Notepads are my weapon of choice.

    I also love the fact you managed to add a romantic into this post. Samuel Coleridge was one of the weirder romantics but still an interesting one.

  4. Chazz,

    It is quite easy for me to fit in a Romantic, anywhere. 😉

  5. Useful talent 🙂

  6. I write in books all the time. To take note of something or to bring attention to something I question about to look up later. When it is more than one thing on a page I dog ears my books. Small dog ears means need to look it up. Big fall in half mean “must” look up and retain.

    For example even this weekend. I bought my first german book last week. I wrote words above the words that I did not understand.

  7. I used to be opposed to writing in books, but while taking a course on aesthetics and another on critical theory. Now I have to restrain myself from writing in books, particularly as I’m working on my thesis and must restrain from writing in library books.
    My solution? Carry a notebook with me and write down the lines/phrases that I like. That, or use cut up Post-It notes for when working on my thesis.

  8. That should say “but while taking a course on aesthetics and another on critical theory, I changed my mind”. Proofreading is a good thing.

  9. Hey Starting Over,

    Congrats on reading your first German book! May I ask what it is?

  10. No worries, Beth. I understood what you meant. 🙂

  11. Yes, it is a book that can keep my attention:)
    Conni goes to Kindergarten:)

    I need something with colors and photos to keep my attention so I won’t does off or feel sleepy. I have found out that children book cost more than adult books. I was debating to get a big novel love book for 3E or Conni book for 15E. Continue flipping through the pages and said I get the children book. I have learned a lot of new words so far. Please forgive if I do not spell it right. But I learned that kindergarten teachers are not called Leherin they are call Erieherin. I been looking for garden shoes now I know it is Gummistiefel. Last I love to eat Nussschleife. I always knew Nuss is nut but never paid attention to schliefe. Reading the book I laugh out loud and said oh that make sense schliefe is bow. The pastry is shape like a bow and Conni wore here favore hair bow to the first day to school. Oh ya endlich. Endlich is finally, lol.
    I am slowly reading it trying not to just translate it right away in English but to pay attention to the grammar, spelling of the words, and sentence structures. My Prufung is this Friday and I need to retain German. Since I been out of school for 2 weeks all I been reading is English and not so much German. This is not good for my delicate brain, lol.

  12. Hey Starting Over,

    “I am slowly reading it trying not to just translate it right away in English but to pay attention to the grammar, spelling of the words, and sentence structures.”

    – I do the same. 😉

    Good luck on Friday! 🙂

  13. Great minds do think a like:) and thank you. I will let the world know in 4 weeks or so if I pass and if I fail I just let you know:)

  14. I have a book of poetry I found at a flea market, “A Wearying for you: A Gift of Love and Friendship” poems selected by Edith Stevens.

    Inside the cover is the inscription:
    To Mama,
    July 1st, 1917
    Pruand (not quite sure though)

    A lot of the poems have underlines and brackets around the verses that I wish you were here and the like.

  15. Just to add copyright is 1910

    Some of the poets selected are:
    Lowell
    Hastings
    Browning
    Mrs. Browning
    Landor
    Swinburne is in here too.
    Wordsworth
    Longfellow

    There is no table of contents but I the poetry is beautiful.

  16. Hey Lyra,

    Thanks so much for detailing the contents of the book. And that’s so sweet about the inscription. I just love that about used books.

  17. *cries* Please don’t talk about writing in books…

    There are few things which really, really winds me up, and the non-pencil variety of notes in a book is up there with folding over the corners of a page, or tearing plates out of old titles, or removing covers.

    Somewhere, an angel dies every time a book is defaced.

  18. *shields books from Bigword’s eyes*

  19. Oh, my. I never read that poem by Raleigh before. Chilling, knowing the circumstances. Thanks for that, Tasha.

    I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with marginalia: I can read back over my own notes from grade school and it often feels like a sort of journal (and it’s as close as I’ve ever been willing to get to keeping one of those); but at the same time I find it intrusive when I’m deep in a book or poem. It’s like having someone talking at you while you’re trying to read.

  20. I love picking up old copies of books and finding past owner’s name and thoughts inscribed in it. There’s something almost magical about it. I used to refuse to mark a book in any way (excepting writing my name on the first page). Now, however, I’ve found that by doing so makes the book seem more ME somehow.

  21. Hey Amy,

    The circumstances of the poem are chilling. I can’t imagine how it must feel to be awaiting your execution.

  22. Heya Brownpapergal,

    I feel the same way about how seeing previous owner’s names is somewhat magical. It links people.

  23. Old paperbacks which have inscriptions from the author are even better than marks from previous authors, especially if they are tucked away in the middle of the book rather than up front at the start of the book. I’ve picked up a few books which have such marks (some very, very funny), though often they tend to be the kind of things I would try to ask permission to repeat, such is the personal nature of the missives.

    As for me writing in books? The answer is still a negative. 🙂

  24. Previous owners… *sigh*

    Proofread, Gary. Proofread. *headdesk*

  25. I, too, actively read (another term coined for the little notes and underlines we make while we read). For me, the book I really do this the most with is my Bible. I’ll go back and read a verse, see my note on it, and inevitably end up going back trying to follow my previous line of thinking that led me to that conclusion.

    Oddly enough, though, I won’t mark in a textbook or novel to save my life. I wonder if it’s because my dad once told me a long time ago that doing so reveals a lot to anyone else who reads my scribbles. I guess, deep down, I think I have something worth hiding. LOL

  26. I was mortified one day in Half Price Books to realize a book they had for sale used to belong to me, and that I had not only written notes in the margins, but also scrawled my name across the inside cover. I don’t know how a book that I’d written in ended up with things to sell, but it was embarrassing to stand in the bookstore and see my notes.

  27. […] aka Tasha from Gypsyscarlett’s Weblog – Writing The Victorian Gothic is a writer and have many short story published. She is currently working on a book and as DD she […]

  28. […] aka Tasha from Gypsyscarlett’s Weblog – Writing The Victorian Gothic is a writer and have many short story published. She is currently working on a book and as DD she […]


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