Office of the VP for Communications – Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

Marginal words

Were you ever warned against writing in books? I certainly was.

Here and there in the Graduate Library are ancient signs threatening prosecution and fines for writing in library books. There’s a law that’s been in place since 1931 that declares such writings to constitute a misdemeanor.

A student of mine once highlighted page after page of a scarce little volume that only he had ever checked out. Coincidentally he asked me to be listed as a testimonial to his fitness for the bar. I said I would. Coincidentally nobody ever asked me to offer my opinion.

I wonder what I would have done had I been asked for a reference for this scoff-lawyer.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge scribbled furiously in books, including ones borrowed from his friends. Charles Lamb published an essay in which he declared that Coleridge’s notes tripled the value of the books he borrowed, and an edition of Coleridge’s marginalia has thus far reached five stout volumes.

Just where you write in books seems to be important too. Writing in the margins is less venal than writing inside the block of text.

Perhaps there’s an exception for works in foreign languages. We know what many Old English words mean because a reader learning Latin stuck them in between the lines so he could remember the English translation of the Latin text. The very first example of writing in the Castilian language appears in the margins of an otherwise Latin manuscript.

It’s in the margins where people feel most free to express themselves. Even the splendid and holy of medieval manuscripts may have doodles and sketches of the most whimsical kind in the margins—a gent pulling up his hose, fantastic comical birds drawn by the artist who so faithfully inscribed the text inside the margins.

Brian O’Nolan (who used, among other pseudonyms, Flann O’Brien and Miles na Gopaleen) wrote an essay describing a service that would provide the newly prosperous with annotated books that would lead visitors to imagine that they had read them. And in The World According to Bertie, Alexander McCall Smith has Edinburgh intellectuals talking archly about the idea as yet another evidence for the decline of civilization.

All sorts of words used to be used in academic marginalia: ibid., idem., loc. cit., op. cit., supra. Teaching students what these meant and how to use them wasted a lot of valuable teaching time in the past, so much so that the style sheets figured out ways to accomplish the same work without bothering with these marginal words.

We still have margins and readers remain eager to write things in them.

Electronic books in English don’t yet have the capacity for marginalia, though Japanese electronics engineers have brought to market something like Kindle for those who have the yen to write in the margins.

My hunch is that we will have copies of books in our virtual spaces, and that we can write little notes in part of that space and link it to the book. (As we do in this column and as many newspapers do in inviting readers to add “comments.”) Thus we can escape prosecution for writing in books while “personalizing” them to our heart’s content.

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