Marginalia: Use or Abuse?

mar·gi·na·lia (n) - marginal notes or embellishments

I'm a big fan of marginalia. I never write in pen, or use a highlighter, but you can bet any book I love is filled with penciled annotations and underlined passages. I find the more I like a novel, the more marginalia I scribble inside of it.

Word has it marginalia began as a result of the scarcity of paper. Authors who were poor borrowed the blank spaces of the page to write their own words. Voltaire composed in book margins while he was in prison. Then it adapted into a way of remembering and finally, a means of noting interpretations or enthusiasms. Edgar Allen Poe titled his fragmentary work "Marginalia". Samuel T. Coleridge's marginalia were published in a five volume set.

All of us mark our books somehow - whether that be dog-ears, post its, scribbles or stains. To me, marginalia makes used books more interesting and borrowed books more personal (let me be clear I don't write in books I borrow - I am referring to my own books that I borrow out, or books I borrow from others who have written their own annotations). It marks ownership and reveals reader's nuances. It's also a way of connecting and responding to the author - alive or dead.

So there it is - my short defense of my marginalia. If you're interested in more detail, check out H. J. Jackson's Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books.


  1. Wait, you write in the margins of books you borrow?! Hmmm...good to know. *Scratches Brenna off list of people who can borrow my books.* (Kidding...)

    I actually never write in my books. I can't even dog-ear corners. OCD of me, know. I actually use post-its to mark quotes or ideas I want to be sure to remember. That gets me made fun of fairly frequently, but something about writing in or bending pages of a book just makes me shudder.

    Nice re-design, by the way. When did you do this? Just noticed it today...

  2. Greg, I don't write in borrowed books! I meant it makes it more interesting when you borrow books from people who write in their own books... I should work on that wording. Anyhow, I don't dog-ear either, and usually yell at people who do. But for some reason I think writing in them is ok (only in pencil of course). Also, I did the redesign on my snow day Wednesday. It had been about a year since I changed it and felt like I didn't want color anymore. Thanks for the kind words :) I like it too.

  3. I'm with Greg. My resistance to writing in books stems from the time my mom caught me in my closet autographing one of my Dr. Seuss books. She made it quite clear to me that that is Not Done. I used to dog-ear my books when I was little, too, (not sure why my mom allowed that) but I won't even do that anymore. Oddly, however, I don't mind reading a book someone else has marked in. It's interesting to see what stood out to them.

  4. yesss! i saw on twitter yesterday someone commenting (negatively) on marginalia, but i love it. maybe eight years ago i tried to keep my books pristine, but once i started making notes in them it was over. it adds so much to my reading experience...i love rereading and seeing what lines i marked before and what i thought of a book on earlier reads.

    i admit, too, to writing in books i get from the library, although i won't ever write in books i've borrowed from people. but never in pen - i write in pencil and go through afterwards and erase them. this habit of erasure has kind of left me since i came to macedonia, though, because anyone i've mentioned this to tells me to leave my marks in the books from the peace corps library, because they too...love marginalia.

    also, love the redesign.

    -- ellen

  5. Kathy, If I hadn't been encouraged to write inside the margins I may have been like you. Esp if I were yelled at for it. But I wasn't - so I'm pretty enthusiastic.

    fatbooks, Yes! Someone is with me! I agree it's always neat to go back and read your own annotations from the first time you read a book or took notes in it from university. I also like reading other peoples marks.

  6. I am a confirmed pencil-wielding reader. No dog ears, no pen, and (*gasp*) definitely no highlighter, but I can have whole conversations in those margins. I also underline regularly although not heavily. I try to choose only the really lovely bits, so I can be sure to find them again later. Fun post!

  7. Sara, Glad to see you're on board! It sounds like we are marginalia soul mates!

  8. I'm a fan of marginilia too and I completely agree that it makes books more interesting. It's like hearing your book club's comments on the book as you're reading it. I'm a chronic highlighter (of my own books only). I love flipping through my favorites and seeing the passages that stood out to me at different points in my life.

    ps Love the redesign!

  9. Avid Reader, Thanks! And it's good to find another fan of marginalia!

  10. I actually love borrowing a book from someone who has made lots of notes but I never do it myself. It's one of the reasons I really love my Kindle: no guilt notes.

    The exception was text books. I really didn't care about those and had no problem marking them up.

  11. When I went to secondary school and had to annotate/highlight my English Lit books I was horrified at first as I had always been a careful book owner but now my attitude has changed completely.

    I often hightlight favourite passages or turn the corners down on certain pages permanently. I also enjoy buying second hand books with marginalia, so I can see other people's interpretations of the book. It makes it feel like the book has a history.

  12. Red, I can't say I've borrowed a book with a lot of annotating in it - but I really would love to do so.

    Sam, I felt the same way at first too - thinking it was wrong to write in books. I quickly changed my mind. And that's a good point you bring up about marginalia making the book feel like it has a history - you're completely right.

  13. One thing I love about used books is finding marginalia. And I am a hopeless margin-writer - I don't write in borrowed books but it is HARD. Glad to have learned this new word!

  14. This pains me to read. I once bought an expensive first edition, took it home and months later when I read it... noticed that page 187 was hi-lighted. It's not writing in the margin, but it's equally distasteful to appreciators of nice books.

    One could say... 'they're my books and I can do whatever I want with them' to which I don't disagree. However, I think of someone buying them later on that really loves them too, only to find out that their book has been marked. Some enjoy this, but it kind of upsets me.

    On top of this, most scribbles I have read have note of limited intelligence... mainly useless drivel. Now I know I'm being a snob, but I just find it can only take away from texts in the majority of cases. Just my two cents.

  15. Oh my god! Writing in books?! Eekkk... My poor heart and eyes can't take it. I am a freak with my books. No cracking spines, no dog-eared pages, and absolutely NO writing in them.

    I attend lots of book sales and it kills me to purchase a book that has writing in it, or underlined passages. I check high and low for an unmarked copy before taking home the defiled one.

  16. I write the lines I like in my notebook and other opinions there. I have never written in the pages. If it's my book, I only have my name at the back of the cover. that's it..

    But I do write in my books in school. Haha

  17. I'm very OC when it comes to my books. I don't dog-ear them, and I don't write on them. However, the secondhand books I buy with little notes written all over them make me smile. I always end up wondering why the previous owners thought this or that and why they decided to give this particular book away. :)

  18. Great Post. It's hard to resist a sneaky asterix or a quiet underline here and there when the book you are reading is not your own!

  19. L.L., Yay! I'd like to borrow a book from you :)

    Eclectic, I can appreciate the points you bring up. If I were to buy an expensive first edition I would prefer it to be unmarked as well (and for the record I NEVER highlight in books - only write in pencil) but I suppose I would think of that first edition differently from my other, "everyday" books.

    TNBBC, I'm a freak when it comes to dog-earring and spine breaking as well. I like to keep my books in nice condition. I guess I don't associate annotations with poor condition, but I can understand those who do.

    Ella, My books from university were written on everywhere!

    Darlyn, It always interesting to see what passages stood out to other readers.

    Constance, Yay! :)

    Ambee, I like your phrase "quiet underline" because that's what it feels like - I'm not viciously scribbling all over the page, just little notes here and there and "quiet underlines". :)

  20. I LOVE marginalia, but only in ARCs or copies that are a bit beat up (I do it ALL the time). Never in a brand new hard cover. I prefer to use a highlighter, along with a mechanical pencil, but it really helps when I do my reviews.

  21. I don't mind if others do it to their books (I would still borrow a book with margin notes) but I can't bring myself to alter my books in any way. I don't know why I have such high standards for my books other than just a personal preference. No one else in my family is a reader so they didn't teach me to care either way.

    I imagine I would have some sort of psychotic episode if someone borrowed a book from me and returned it with writing in it ;-)

  22. I don't write in my books; I use post-its. I also dislike reading books others have written in, though I don't in general object to people writing in books. For me, seeing previous markings -- my own or someone else's -- biases me toward those passages before I've had a chance to respond to them myself. I think it's interesting to see what other people think after I've read a book, but I don't like it the first time through.

    It's interesting to hear how marginalia started, though -- kind of cool!

  23. I never write in my books, but I do love finding books that have been written in. It's so fun!

  24. I never write in my books, but that is more to do with the fact that I would never have a pencil on me when I am actually reading the book.

    I am definitely a dog earer though - books are there to be used (read) so I am going to do that without worrying about it.

    When I buy second hand books I really like reading the things that people have written on the inside covers - that always feels a bit special. And I don't mind having a view pencil marks on some pages either (the book im reading at the moment someone has circled words in pencil that I assume they don't know the meaning of) but i really don't like borrowing a library book or getting a second hand book that is scribbled in everywhere - it just makes it too hard to read