Writing in the margins of books (what is called Marginalia) faces an uncertain fate in an increasingly digitized world. For this very reason, books with notes or marks in the margins are valued for their social and cultural legacy.
Of course, we’re not talking about the scribblings one finds in a library notebook or a used textbook, we’re talking about writings made in the margins by famous or interesting people throughout history. Writers like Jack Kerouac, Vladimir Nabokov, Sylvia Plath and Mark Twain – each of whom left behind books with traces of their notes scribbled in the margins.
The earliest, and perhaps most famous, recording of marginalia is from 17th-century French mathematician Pierre de Fermat, who wrote in his copy of Diophantus’ Arithmetica: “I have a truly marvelous proof of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.”
Yet it wasn’t until 1918 that the term “marginalia” first appeared, coined by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. An elaborate note-taker, Coleridge nearly made a second career out of this practice, filling up over 450 books over his lifetime with notes in the margins.
While perhaps being one of the most prolific, Coleridge was certainly not alone. William Blake and Walt Whitman were also each avid margin writers, as was Edgar Allen Poe who wrote an essay on the topic. Voltaire composed in book margins while in prison, and it’s claimed that the English poet John Bethune wrote in the margins because he could not afford paper. Twain, a great humorist, was as entertaining in his notes as he was in his novels. “A cat do better literature than this,” he exclaimed in the margins of one novel he had a particularly hard time struggling to get through. Darwin too wrote in the margins . One of the most famous of his hand-written notes is a drawing of an evolutionary tree, the words “I think,” written under it. (See the image on the right.)
“People will always find a way to annotate electronically,” said G. Thomas Tanselle, a former vice president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and an adjunct professor of English at Columbia University. “But there is the question of how it is going to be preserved. And that is a problem now facing collections libraries.”
The story also recounts an interesting example of Nelson Mandela marginalia: while imprisoned in South Africa in 1977, Mandela wrote his name next to a passage from “Julius Caesar” that read, “Cowards die many times before their deaths.”
Perhaps Shakespeare would have agreed with Vladimir Nabokov on this one: “My ideal reader is someone who reads with a dictionary and a pencil.”