THE MARGINAL OBSESSION WITH MARGINALIA
“In getting my books,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 1844, “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 penciling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” It’s a sentiment that a certain type of reader might be inclined to endorse by underlining, asterisking, or even scrawling “yes!” in the adjacent margin. Such readers feel that they aren’t really giving a book their full attention unless they’re hovering over it with a pencil, poised to underline or annotate at the slightest provocation. George Steiner memorably defined an intellectual as “quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.” Its admirable pithiness aside, the quip’s popularity probably has a lot to do with its egalitarian spirit: you don’t need to be able to give a detailed account of Heidegger’s ontology or have published a monograph on Proust to gain access to the club; you just have to keep a nicely sharpened HB in your hand as you read. (I tend to slot mine behind my right ear, carpenter style; I like to think this lends a somewhat rough-and-ready aspect to my appearance as I sit reading “Middlemarch” on the bus home.)

Marginalia have always been at the center of serious reading, but they have a place, too, at the margins of literary history. For a 2010 Talk of the Town piece, Ian Frazier wrote about a trip he took to the New York Public Library to view the annotated former possessions of various literary luminaries. He took particular note of a copy of Thoreau’s “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” which had been borrowed by Jack Kerouac from a local library in 1949, never to be returned. On page 227, Frazier noted a short sentence Kerouac had underlined in pencil, putting a “small, neat check mark beside it.” The sentence: “The traveler must be born again on the road.” In a copy of “Fifty-five Short Stories from The New Yorker, 1940-1950” once owned by Nabokov, he observed that the former Cornell literature professor had taken the trouble to give each story a grade, neatly penciled in beside its title in the table of contents. Only two stories in the anthology were awarded an A+ grade: J. D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and Nabokov’s own “Colette.” It’s not terribly surprising that this particular teacher was his own pet; those lower down the honor role might have taken comfort from bearing in mind that this was a guy who described the work of T. S. Eliot and Thomas Mann as, respectively, “second-rate” and “asinine.”


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THE MARGINAL OBSESSION WITH MARGINALIA

“In getting my books,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 1844, “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 penciling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” It’s a sentiment that a certain type of reader might be inclined to endorse by underlining, asterisking, or even scrawling “yes!” in the adjacent margin. Such readers feel that they aren’t really giving a book their full attention unless they’re hovering over it with a pencil, poised to underline or annotate at the slightest provocation. George Steiner memorably defined an intellectual as “quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.” Its admirable pithiness aside, the quip’s popularity probably has a lot to do with its egalitarian spirit: you don’t need to be able to give a detailed account of Heidegger’s ontology or have published a monograph on Proust to gain access to the club; you just have to keep a nicely sharpened HB in your hand as you read. (I tend to slot mine behind my right ear, carpenter style; I like to think this lends a somewhat rough-and-ready aspect to my appearance as I sit reading “Middlemarch” on the bus home.)

Marginalia have always been at the center of serious reading, but they have a place, too, at the margins of literary history. For a 2010 Talk of the Town piece, Ian Frazier wrote about a trip he took to the New York Public Library to view the annotated former possessions of various literary luminaries. He took particular note of a copy of Thoreau’s “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” which had been borrowed by Jack Kerouac from a local library in 1949, never to be returned. On page 227, Frazier noted a short sentence Kerouac had underlined in pencil, putting a “small, neat check mark beside it.” The sentence: “The traveler must be born again on the road.” In a copy of “Fifty-five Short Stories from The New Yorker, 1940-1950” once owned by Nabokov, he observed that the former Cornell literature professor had taken the trouble to give each story a grade, neatly penciled in beside its title in the table of contents. Only two stories in the anthology were awarded an A+ grade: J. D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and Nabokov’s own “Colette.” It’s not terribly surprising that this particular teacher was his own pet; those lower down the honor role might have taken comfort from bearing in mind that this was a guy who described the work of T. S. Eliot and Thomas Mann as, respectively, “second-rate” and “asinine.”


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