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Marginalia and Other Crimes
January 8, 2004 8:21 PM   Subscribe

Marginalia and Other Crimes: I’ve always had an intense hatred for people that deface books, and if they're my books, the intensity is doubled. But imagine the atrocities the average librarian faces every day... Witness this display of damaged and defiled books from the Cambridge University library, with attached sarcastic commentary. The horror! Not for the squeamish.
posted by chrisgregory (48 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
This was interesting. I am currently writing up a lesson plan on reading critically for first year university students, and one point I emphasize is that if they're going to make marginalia, they should do it only in their own books.

Though, on occasion, marginalia can be fun to read. One text I read on Wild West Shows and Native Americans contained an incredible number of terribly sanctimonious comments on the author's point of view. Finally, on one page, another person had written "May the ghost of Gordon Campbell [the premier of the province who was not very popular at my university] haunt whoever has defaced this book."

Hmmm.
posted by synecdoche at 8:46 PM on January 8, 2004 [1 favorite]


Ah, the courtly lovers of books. Anne Fadiman, in her wonderful Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader discusses the difference between courtly lovers of books and carnal lovers of books.

Courtly lovers maintain their volumes as pristine and precious items, clean from dog-ears and marginalia.

Carnal lovers of books — of which I am one — fold pages, jot notes in the margin and on the flyleafs, and otherwise mutilate their books.

Of course, I do have limits. Since I discovered Brodart, I've been purchasing book jacket covers in droves and now I protect all of my covers in mylar. Still, that's not evidence of a desire to protect my books so much as it is another symptom of my disease...

Hi. I'm J.D. Roth. I'm a bibliophile.
posted by jdroth at 8:50 PM on January 8, 2004


Worshipping the lamp instead of the light is rather silly, isn't it?
posted by Space Coyote at 8:52 PM on January 8, 2004 [1 favorite]


That's one of my pet peeves, too. I lent a book to a friend once so she could find a quote for a project she was doing. When she tried to photocopy the appropriate page, there was a black stripe down the copy where the spine of the book lifted the paper from the copier glass. Seeing no other way of getting the pristine reproduction she wanted, my friend tore the page from the book and copied the lone page. Then she tried to return it to me like that.

Marking and otherwise altering books is fine, it they're yours. I don't know how anyone with a conscience could deface a book borrowed from a legal deposit library like that.
posted by samw at 8:56 PM on January 8, 2004


Kicking the lamp around the room isn't going to benefit anybody in the long run.
posted by chrisgregory at 8:58 PM on January 8, 2004


Ah the horror indeed ! Guess the concept of public property and respect of it when into the toilet with the Bus..eh ok :) regardless of administration.

Guess a potential patch to the problem, while somebody invents undestructible unmarginable cheap books, is Project Gutenberg.

Your help is also welcome proofreading the new text they're preparing (so far 10000+ done and -free-). I did more or less 500 pages so far.
posted by elpapacito at 9:03 PM on January 8, 2004


*shudder*

I agree, of course, chrisgregory, but I'd like to enrich the discussion by playing the devil's advocate, if you don't mind.

I went to Manchester University for my degree, Master's and Ph.D. Then on to Oxford (Balliol, St. Antony's and All Souls) for post-doctoral fellowships. Having anti-social hours and obsessive reading habits, libraries were always my mainstay. I usually missed lectures because I found that, by reading, I could keep myself entertained far more rapidly and profitably.

At no time was this tendency discouraged - in fact, apart from the marvellous encouragements from my tutors (it was, in the 70s/80s an essay-based system) I was rewarded with the first First Class Honours in Government (the traditional name for Political Studies/Philosophy in Manchester) in 18 years, earning even a personal letter from the Prime Minister.

At the same time, my grandfather and father always taught me that books were simply printed statements that cried for criticism and questioning and that, rather than write in pencil, I should always inscribe my (own) copies of each book in ink, with my considered responses as if, in the words of my late father, "the author was waiting to read them and would hate anyone who defaced the book with mere silliness."

Well, when I got to university and immersed myself in Manchester University's magnificent John Rylands Library, I was often greeted by displays of "defaced books" before I entered. The truth is, however - at least in the field of political philosophy - that a significant percentage of marginal comments in library books (I'd say as much as 10%) were at least thought-provoking and, at best, influential.

Although I'm from a very bookish and even bibliophilic family, I don't think books are more than printed specimens of stuff people have thought and written. As such, there's nothing sacrossant about them. If I were rich, of course I'd have two copies of each book - one I could write in (argue in) and another that I'd leave as it is.

But anyone who has used public libraries and benefitted from marginal discussions between readers must at least concede that, obvious defacements apart, there's much that is genuine and useful conversation. A book is no more definitive than the discussion it provokes. Writer/readers' dialogue, as carried out in the margins, can also be valuable.

(I've exaggerated this in order to honour your interesting question.)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:12 PM on January 8, 2004 [1 favorite]


Funny -- I think that MetaFilter (especially when it's NewsFilter) is kind of like a marginalia discussion for the web.
posted by SpecialK at 9:23 PM on January 8, 2004


D'jever notice that Objectivists are by far the worst *group* of offenders?

Any book by or about Ayn Rand that I ever managed to check out of NYU's Bobst Library invariably had dozens of closely-scrabbled, intensely passionate comments in the margins, like, "YES!!!!!!! Self interest is the whole point. A = A," or "Branden is NOT AUTHORIZED to comment on these matters and is COMPLETELY ILLEGITIMATE as a source." I can't remember any other group feeling quite the same compulsive/combustible need to controvert the written word.
posted by adamgreenfield at 9:46 PM on January 8, 2004



Occasionally, one set of annotations provokes a further set of comments, both to the detriment of the original text. And when it turns into a series of derogatory remarks, posterity is unlikely to benefit from these scholars' notes.


Reminds me of MetaTalk.
posted by electro at 9:54 PM on January 8, 2004


Anyone who intentionally defaces a book that isn't theirs should be summarily executed. Anyone who defaces a book that IS theirs should have to submit to extensive counselling.

Okay, maybe not. But it makes my skin crawl all the same.
posted by rushmc at 10:18 PM on January 8, 2004


I occasionally throw books out. Mean people kick ass.
posted by stbalbach at 11:20 PM on January 8, 2004


here's something we found in the stacks at my library some months ago:



the thing is, it doesn't have a spine label and it doesn't exist in the catalog. no one knows why there is a pole inside of it, or how it got into the library.
posted by mcsweetie at 11:32 PM on January 8, 2004


another one: our copy of Teaching Obedience Classes and Seminars has been lightly chewed. hmm...
posted by mcsweetie at 11:35 PM on January 8, 2004


Oddly, as messy as I am, and as poorly as I take care of things, the only types of notes I make in books are occassionally underlining phrases then noting the page of the phrase in the back of the book.

Though I am tempted to get really elaborate book plates, then disseminate my books into the world, and see where they end up.

As a reader though, marginalia is great, I love seeing what other people thought as they read. The best is what people use as bookmarks then leave behind. I've found bills, meeting announcements for strange groups and other things.
posted by drezdn at 12:51 AM on January 9, 2004


I worked as a bookbinder/book repair drone at a Boston area University library for 8 years. After a few years of eight hour days sewing spines and gluing buckram your brain goes mushy, and then the mischievous bookbinders start playing their little games. Usually we used discarded books for these puerile amusments. One was to chop a discard copy of the complete works of Shakespeare in half so that when you pulled it off the shelf only the top half would come out. Another was absurd fake alumni book gift plates. If you search the Mugar stacks long enough you will find gift plates from Attila The Hun, Scrooge McDuck, Pogo, and Elvis all over the place.

On the other hand, we did occasionally perform worthwhile services, such as removing the censor's ink from South African publications.
posted by zaelic at 3:01 AM on January 9, 2004


Oddly, as messy as I am, and as poorly as I take care of things, the only types of notes I make in books are occassionally underlining phrases then noting the page of the phrase in the back of the book. 30622

Though I am tempted to get really elaborate book plates, then disseminate my books into the world, and see where they end up.

?says you!
As a reader though, marginalia is great, I love seeing what other people
Really? I find it distracting
thought as they read. The best is what people use as bookmarks then leave behind. I've found bills, meeting announcements for strange groups and other things.
?Now there I agree.
posted by rory at 4:41 AM on January 9, 2004


Bollocks, preview ate my arrows. ↓↑
posted by rory at 4:42 AM on January 9, 2004


You'd think a university library site would know how to spell "borrrowable" properly... sheesh.

One of my treasured possessions is my great-grandfather's Bible (which is a little bizarre as I'm an atheist), partly due to the marginalia. He was a missionary in China, apparently, in the late 1800s. His penmanship is incredible - it's actually better and in a smaller font size than the printed text (which is pretty small to begin with).

Me? I get annoyed when someone cracks the spine of my paperbacks.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 5:31 AM on January 9, 2004


And there was Orton and Halliwell's defacement of library books. I can't find any examples of their handiwork, but I bet those scamps improved on the originals.
posted by emf at 5:36 AM on January 9, 2004


I was in grad school with a woman who would rip the necessary pages out of library books that she needed so that she could be sure that her colleagues did not have access to the same research she did.
posted by archimago at 5:53 AM on January 9, 2004


Miguel, with all respect, I must declare my belief that one must never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, mark a book for any reason -- not a book that you own, not a book that you borrow, not a book that you've written, and especially not a book in a library. I'm sick and staggered to think that someone at your level would even consider such a thing, even to play devil's advocate. I have to put my conscience on hold to scrawl my name on title pages at book signings, and go through the whole thing in a trance, like a soldier carrying out a mass execution. To open a book and see a beautiful page of print defaced with underlinings, commentary, check marks or other marginalia is like opening Bluebeard's closet. I am sick with horror. I have nothing against commentary and marginalia, but the place for the commentary -- and one of the great inventions of our time -- is MetaFilter.
...a significant percentage of marginal comments in library books (I'd say as much as 10%) were at least thought-provoking and, at best, influential -- Miguel
And I'm so sorry to take issue with you on this, but I have never read a marginal comment that was anything but so moronic as to depress me for an entire day, and make me want to wash my hands for touching the same book as the person who would not only write in a book, but write something incredibly stupid in a book.
The proper place for saying incredibly stupid things (and I do it all the time) is not in a the sacred, precious precints of a book, but in this other precious place, MetaFilter.
posted by Faze at 6:27 AM on January 9, 2004


Good post (though it made me want to cry).

Especially this one, since one of my Library of America volumes recently suffered a similar fate.

The only times during graduate school when I wrote in books were when I was linking a book to a separate set of published annotations (for instance, I have a copy of the Vintage edition of Ulysses with underlining that references Gifford's Ulysses Annotated). And I wrote in a copy of Gadamer's Truth and Method, but that was only because I needed to make extensive marginalia in order to make sense of the primary text.

But those were my own private copies, of which I had multiple editions: anyone who writes in a library copy of a book should have their fingernails extracted (or, at least, their borrowing privileges revoked).
posted by Prospero at 7:00 AM on January 9, 2004


Two stories:

I studied 18th Century British Lit in grad school. My advisor, whom I was quite close to, died, and I was given the opportunity to take a book from his library. I didn’t take any of the beautifully-bound 18th-Century books, but his dog-eared, paper-clipped, bountifully-annotated 20th-Century copy of Tristram Shandy. Every time I pick it up, it’s like having a conversation with him.

I did my Master’s thesis on Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. The book went though multiple editions in the author’s lifetime, and each time, the author added annotations, footnotes, endnotes, even typographical marks in the margins, to prevent what he saw as misinterpretations of the text. It’s a massive work, 8 volumes, and just about anyone who reads it these days reads the abridged version, and misses out on the author’s commentary. That’s a huge loss for them.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:10 AM on January 9, 2004


Nice post, chrisgregory, and that is a well put together site. I join the others who write and rewrite in their own books, but wish that others would leave the library books alone ...
posted by carter at 7:12 AM on January 9, 2004


I lent a book to a friend once so she could find a quote for a project she was doing. When she tried to photocopy the appropriate page, there was a black stripe down the copy where the spine of the book lifted the paper from the copier glass. Seeing no other way of getting the pristine reproduction she wanted, my friend tore the page from the book and copied the lone page. Then she tried to return it to me like that.

In the unlikely event you ever loan her a book again, suggest this: The "black stripe" is caused by the shadow of the part of book being raised by the spine. If it will not obscure the text, place a white piece of paper on the platen covering the area where the shadow falls. Failing that, make a copy with a lower contrast setting, then use a paper cutter to cut off the darkened area and then make a higher contrast copy of the copy.

I was a secretary once, a long long time ago. I didn't realize for the longest time how much subliminal knowledge there is to have about copiers until I saw people who lacked that knowledge attempt to operate them.
posted by Karmakaze at 7:23 AM on January 9, 2004


Good post on an interesting topic. Like most here, I like annotating my own books but not other people's (though I do occasionally correct errors in library books, in as minimal and unobtrusive a way as possible), and like Miguel, I occasionally find other people's annotations of interest (though 10% is too high a figure). BUT:

rather than write in pencil, I should always inscribe my (own) copies of each book in ink

If this is not one of your exaggerations, it's a bit bizarre. I use only pencil (and write lightly), so that should my books find their way onto the market again, the purchaser can erase my unwanted annotations. Using ink smacks of deliberate defacement. No matter how badly I want a book, I won't buy a used copy that has annotations in ink, and I always curse the person who did it. (Well, except for my 1507 copy of Quintus Curtius; there, I curse the person who butchered the book in rebinding so that the 16th-century marginalia are cut in half and rendered unreadable.)

Incidentally, there's a book Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books by H. J. Jackson that "surveys an extraordinary range of annotated books to explore the history of marginalia, the forms they take, the psychology that underlies them, and the reactions they provoke." Might be worth a look.
posted by languagehat at 7:59 AM on January 9, 2004


The artist in me applauds Miguel's attitude but viscerally I am on Faze and rushmc's no-touchy side of the fence. I've never been much for taking notes of any sort though.
posted by furiousthought at 8:02 AM on January 9, 2004


Faze is a courtly lover of books.

Though I'm an unabashed carnal lover of books, I do try to restrict my jotting of notes to books I own. But I cannot imagine not writing in them.

How many times have I written NO! and underlined it a zillion times, only to go back years later to find that I no longer felt NO!?

How many times have I written HA! and underlined it a zillion times, only to go back years later to find that the bit was still funny?

Mostly, though, I know that my enjoyment of certain books (for example, Cold Mountain) would be greatly diminished without my marginalia. Using my Cold Mountain example: during one reading, I tracked the approximate dates of every event, paying particular attention to the moon cycles; on another, I tracked the use of birds in the text, paying particular attention to crows; on another, I tracked the women that Inman meets on his journey. My notes, jotted in the margins, refresh my memory of these adventures every time I reread the book. It's great fun.

This may be why I particulary covet annotated books: the annotated Hobbit, the annotated Pride and Prejudice, the annotated Wizard of Oz, etc. There aren't enough annotated books in this world.

I think that many of the commenters in this thread, whether pro- or anti-mariginalia, would get a kick out of Fadiman's book. Go borrow it from the library!
posted by jdroth at 8:44 AM on January 9, 2004


For shame, Miguel. If you want to 'enhance' your own library with marginalia, go right ahead. But it's just plain wrong to write in or otherwise deface somebody else's books. It's just another form of littering. There may be rare occasions when marginalia is interesting, but I generally find it distracting, and the commentary seldom is useful or interesting.
posted by theora55 at 9:30 AM on January 9, 2004


jd roth, I too love formally annotated books, including Martin Gardner's pioneering "Annotated Alice" and the wonderful "Annotated Christmas Carol." However, these annotations passed through the editorial review process at a major publishers, and are willingly sought by the readers who know about them. Regarding your own annotating habits, I think they indicate that you would do well to be employed in continuity in the film business, or at the very least, work as an editor in book publishing. However, screaming NO! in margins is simply rude. If the author were sitting before you in a chair, saying whatever he or she is saying in the book, would you shout NO! in that person's face? You shouldn't do it in a book, either.
posted by Faze at 10:04 AM on January 9, 2004


I hardly know how to respond to this thread. Kids mark up books because they're unruly and don't know any better yet, but you're really supposed to grow out of it eventually. I'm sure annotations can be developed into an artform, like really well done graffiti, but in general it's just a nuisance.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:21 AM on January 9, 2004


Maybe I'm a narcissist (maybe? ha!), but what I find interesting is looking through my own books and reading my own asides, underlined sentences, question marks, and so on. I hardly recognize the person that could have been so ignorant/brilliant half the time. It's like a wayback machine, giving you the chance to converse with--or at least salute--your younger self. It's occasionally startling to realize how much your relationship to certain ideas and writers has evolved over the years . . . occasionally I wonder if I've actually gotten wiser or just forgot something vital along the way.

But one should never, never, NEVER mark up library books!
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 11:19 AM on January 9, 2004


However, screaming NO! in margins is simply rude. If the author were sitting before you in a chair, saying whatever he or she is saying in the book, would you shout NO! in that person's face?

No. But if the author were sitting hundreds of miles (and months or years) away in a chair, where they can't see or hear you or even have any awareness of you at all? Why on earth would you not express vehement disagreement?
posted by kindall at 11:47 AM on January 9, 2004


I write notes in my cookbooks: adjustments to the recipes, whether it's worth making again, what goes well with the dish. In my copy of Marcella Hazen's recipe for Roast Chicken with Two Lemons, I write the bird weight and cooking time every time I use it, eventually I won't have to calculate it for an unknown bird. I know that if I ever make Escarole Calzone from Deborah Madison's book again I will use Nicoise rather than Kalamata olives. What would you book lovers suggest as an alternative to marginalia to store this precious information? Floppy disks?
posted by Wet Spot at 1:37 PM on January 9, 2004


if the author were sitting hundreds of miles (and months or years) away in a chair, where they can't see or hear you or even have any awareness of you at all? Why on earth would you not express vehement disagreement? -- kindall
But don't you understand? When you read a book, the author is right there with you, in the room. That's why books must never be defaced, never shouted at, and never thrown in the garbage (although, come to think of it, if no one threw books in the garbage, I would never have found my complete set of Dickens off East End Avenue, so many years ago.) Remember, you, the reader, are subordinate to the writer -- you are the servant who completes the circuit of his or her prose -- respect that fact, and you will get along fine.
posted by Faze at 2:04 PM on January 9, 2004


I just can't tell if you people are joking or not any more.
posted by majcher at 3:18 PM on January 9, 2004


I love reading marginalia and, when buying used books, will generally choose the ones with marginalia above those without. It is just so neat to have that glimpse into the minds of other readers. I guess I'm not a "courtly lover of books" -- the books themselves are not what is sacred to me, the content is sacred. (Though some books are so wonderfully made, or so old, that I would make an exception for them.) So I don't appreciate books made unreadable, but annotation is wonderful.
posted by litlnemo at 3:19 PM on January 9, 2004


I loved buying used books for my university courses simply because of the marginalia. If they weren't highlighted and filled with study notes for the class I would be taking, they were filled with complaints on the class.

Although, once, for my Jewish Mysticism class, I bought a used book of Kabbalah texts. On most of the pages, there were tiny little burn marks all over, like it had been read in front of a housefire on a windy day. Or perhaps the fire from Jehovah himself.

Spoooooooooky.
posted by Katemonkey at 3:47 PM on January 9, 2004


But don't you understand? When you read a book, the author is right there with you, in the room.

Oh, don't be silly.

Remember, you, the reader, are subordinate to the writer -- you are the servant who completes the circuit of his or her prose -- respect that fact, and you will get along fine.

Oh, don't be stupid.
posted by kindall at 4:42 PM on January 9, 2004


Annotation is ok, but that's because it's relatively intelligent. Marginalia sucks, because it's not very neat. It drags my eye away from the text, and makes it harder for me to concentrate.
posted by stoneegg21 at 6:33 PM on January 9, 2004


I write in my cookbooks too. One time I made the same vile curried potato recipe twice because I forgot I'd tried it before and loathed it. I still remember my horror as I watched the stuff in the pan turn into an all too familiar foul brown sludge. So now I rate every recipe I cook, and add things like "only needs half the sugar".

But otherwise, I don't mark books. And I wouldn't dream of marking books that didn't belong to me. And I'm annoyed when I find such markings in a library book - they usually aren't well done.

I did read one funny marginalia story some time ago. A reader was intensely annoyed by all the editing done to the library book she was reading - someone had copy-edited the book and made criticisms all the way through. But she had to laugh when the text of the book read "as he gently kissed her forehead, he gazed into her eyes" and the note in the margin read, "How?"
posted by orange swan at 7:40 PM on January 9, 2004


In the school library in junior high, I once witnessed a kid take a book off the shelf, open it, spit into it, close it, and replace it on the shelf.

Fortunately, my brain instantly froze my body and I couldn't move for almost a minute or I'm certain I would have killed him.

(And I would say that cookbooks were more like workbooks and were therefore exempt from the general rule. Although I mostly use MasterCook, anyway.)
posted by rushmc at 9:47 PM on January 9, 2004


Re: the copying...

Never, Never, Never ask a bookseller if a bookstore has a copy machine.
posted by drezdn at 10:02 PM on January 9, 2004


The Pre-Industrial Blog, a review of "Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books" by H.J. Jackson.
posted by hairyeyeball at 8:27 PM on January 10, 2004


I'm a courtly lover of books, so I don't mark the text with annotations and cross-references. But I'm a carnal lover of people, so I treasure book plates, and I make a point of inscribing a personal note in the inside cover of any book I give as a gift. W ithout defacing a book's readable parts, I like to "package" it with something unique. On the rare occasions when I can bear to part with a book, I've inserted hidden bookmarks.

Two years ago, I picked up a Woody Allen book at a library sale because of a typewritten letter I found inside (dated 1979); the author accused the recipient of spoiling her diet by giving her Toll House cookies, and outlined a recovery plan ("I will eat no more than 15 cookies tomorrow and 10 the next day," with the 15 and 10 cr ossed out in ink and replaced by 30 and 29.5). That really knocked me out.
tD
posted by aws17576 at 1:00 PM on January 11, 2004


While defacing public property is somewhat annoying, I must say that the idea of the "pristine page" has never been something I adhere to; but then, I've never been a collector and, frankly, find the entire collector's mindset to be very cold and almost deathly. I write in my books, carry them around, dog-ear pages sometimes... there is not greater badge than many well-worn books, in my mind. But then, I also would always take my toys out of their boxes take the tags off my stuffed animals.
posted by dagnyscott at 2:04 PM on January 11, 2004


Another book that discusses marginalia is Kevin Jackson's Invisible Forms. The section on marginalia is mostly about that done by well-known literary figures--indeed, the type of margin graffiti created willfully as a way to dedicate books to friends. Coleridge's name comes to mind but I can't recall for certain, as my copy of the book's 300 miles from me right now. Anyway, it's a cute book. The sections on heteronyms and on successful (and unsuccessful) book titles are my favorites, and some of the examples in the section on indexes are just funny. Meta meta, la la la...

And that pole-impaled book photo makes me wince.
posted by ifjuly at 5:04 PM on January 18, 2004


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