Notes in the margin – a blasphemy

I suppose what I’m about to say might seem blasphemous to most librarians and perhaps to many book lovers in general, but we are what we are.

I love finding marginalia in books I read. I love to read the notes others have left behind to see how they reacted and what they liked. Sometimes, though rarely, I even leave notes of my own.

Now I should say at the outset that I respect library books. They are, after all, the property of the hardworking taxpayers of my community. I rarely find notes or marginalia left in these. Nonetheless, when I’m reading even a library book and I come across a spelling error or a missing bit of punctuation (and I find something like this in just about every book I read), I sometimes indulge myself and circle the mistake (in pencil).

The real treasure trove of marginalia, though, comes from used books, as many of you probably already know. A book that is the property of an individual is his or hers to do with as desired. Note taking and making are perfectly fine and, I tend to think, the sign of a vigorous, serious reader. Then, for whatever reason, when such a book finds its way onto the used book market, the marginalia go with it.

I recently bought the novel Coming Up for Air by George Orwell from a used bookstore in London (and it found its way to me in less than a week, all the way here in the middle of the U.S.). At least one prior reader made all kinds of notes in the margin about class issues, which is something we Americans are less sensitized to than our British cousins. In one passage, in which the narrator talks of why he married his wife, he states that it was not because she was from a higher social class than he. The prior reader noted in the margin “up or class” in a scrawl. I’ll never know if this was an attempt to be funny or an actual mistake, but I’ll enjoy speculating. As I will about whether the reader with the scrawled handwriting was the same one who meticulously underlined passages with a ruler to guide the pencil. And was this the same person who marked a few lines throughout with an orange highlighting pen?

I suspect that a great deal of marginalia is made by students who are trying to understand a novel for a class. Once the class is finished, the need for the book is as well, and it goes to the donation bin. There are times, I think, when it is evident that a prior owner was not a student but an adult who read and studied a book for pleasure. The more the notes, the more obvious the pleasure.

I have a copy of John Graves non-fiction memoir Hard Scrabble about a small ranch he lived on in Texas. (It was one of the rural-living books I referred to in this post.) Whoever owned this book before me clearly read it closely and repeatedly. (Written on the inside front cover are the words “Ben Green’s Book” and the hand is the same as of the notes. Thank you, Ben Green!) There are many underlined passages in the book, but most of the notes are collected on the blank pages following the cover. Mr. Green cited various pages throughout and made notes about the topics covered on them. “Poison ivy” on page 149 is noted, as is “stone work” on page 167. Pages 23o, 231, and 232 are marked with stars, and many paragraphs on these pages are marked with corresponding stars. This section deals with the need of civilization to develop a better land ethic. Most endearing of all, though, is his note for page 223 , which discusses novel ways to acquire fertilizer for the farm. Mr. Green writes “The ultimate goal reached. When you can flaunt and be proud of a load of chicken shit, you’ve got it made!”

How could I not love a book in a condition like this?

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2 Comments on “Notes in the margin – a blasphemy”

  1. Beth Says:

    I love reading the notes left behind. In high school, I rescued a few of Shakespeare’s plays from the rubbish shelf (the librarians would put books to be disposed of on a shelf in the basement where students could take them if they wanted. Of course, as this was in the basement, no one knew about it).
    The books are nearly 100 years old, and are filled with the notes of students past…and in some cases, algebra homework.
    I haven’t found too many books beyond these with marginalia. Pity, as they are fun to read.

  2. Pete Says:

    This is one of the unexpected and delightful aspects of reading that would disappear completely if ebooks take over the publishing industry.

    I recently read a used copy of Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam in which the previous owner had left a post-it note which listed several dozen words, most of them arcane or obscure (or, if you prefer, damning evidence that McEwan is a Mr. Smartypants) which the person apparently was unfamiliar with. My wife and I enjoyed a Sunday morning exercise with the list and a dictionary, trying to see how many of the words we knew ourselves.


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