Marginal analysis

Topics books

Growing up in the city then called Calcutta, in the 1980s, you grew accustomed to second-hand and hand-me-down books. Textbooks, in particular, would often be handed over from those being promoted out of a class to those coming in. Occasionally, these textbooks would be a thing of beauty — a decade old, featuring the doodles and comments, of varying quality and comprehensibility, of all the schoolboys who had spent hours in class being bored, pen and paper their only escape. 

One was supposed to do one’s best to avoid partaking in this harmless entertainment, of course. We were all told, growing up, that books were precious and one shouldn’t put marks in them, even if it was a decade-old Marginalia. He was quite firm on “In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin; this is not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”

Poe was part of a great tradition. Things scribbled in books are an art form of their own, and one as old as reading itself. Medieval monks — individuals who had a fairly similar lifestyle and outlook to 1980s Calcuttan schoolboys — were indefatigable writers in the margins, and not all of their glosses were respectable. Even centuries-old receipts and bills are treasure troves for doodle-hunting historians: the earliest use of anti-Semitic tropes that became tragically common in medieval Europe is a cartoon scrawled on a tax receipt in depicting Jewish businessmen with long noses and surrounded by gold, dating from the English king’s exchequer in the 13th century. Sometimes a particular bit of marginalia can become immortal, spawning books and entire careers. Consider the afterlife of Pierre de Fermat’s little note in the margin of his copy of Diophantus’ Arithmetica: “I have a truly marvellous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.” He may have been wrong about having found a proof of his famous “last theorem”, but imagine if he had never written that reminder to himself at all. (It was only discovered and publicised by his son, after Fermat himself had died without writing down his supposed proof in full.)

Less consequential and more personal history is also revealed in the margins of old books. Many of us own books that once belonged to grandparents or great-grandparents, and the occasional note in the margins, a passage or two underlined, is a sometimes surprising window into the opinions of people we did not always know that well growing up. 

One of the tragedies, perhaps, of the growth of e-readers is that we will leave no such archive behind. This is not, perhaps, for want of trying on the part of the large American corporations that now run the documents and books trade, who as we know have only our best interests at heart. Books on the Kindle, for example, offer the option in some cases — if your Kindle is connected to the internet — of seeing what other readers have underlined or commented. I’m not sure if it’s a reflection on our times, or on the general uselessness of social media, that one tends to turn this functionality off. People seem to highlight the most uninteresting or obvious sections when they intend to share it to the cloud. Nor can you pass your own copy of a Kindle book on to a loved one, or pass it down to another student. 

Still, not all is lost. I still find myself unable to write in the margins of books, but it appears that this severe training doesn’t stop me when I’m reading documents or books on the iPad. Give me a PDF of an economics paper and an Apple Pencil, and I’m a happy man, making nasty remarks about the writer’s choice of variables in various shades of red. Some of those I certainly won’t be sharing to the cloud. Nor will any hypothetical descendants ever see it. Margin-writing is now a private act — like e-mails, and lists made in Evernote, and all the other electronic detritus of one’s life, it will never be added to an archive in a university presuming any of us ever become famous enough to deserve one. Future historians trying to deduce what today’s readers think of books they bought will just have to look up their GoodReads reviews. Somehow that seems far less romantic. 


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