Notes in the margins


‘I love a broad margin to my life’, Henry Thoreau wrote in Walden, describing days when he ‘could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands.’ Trees, birdsong, sunlight. In his fully annotated edition of Thoreau’s work, Jeffrey Cramer points to the journal entry for 31 March 1842: ‘The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk.’[1]

(Many readers trapped in debilitating jobs might be yearning for any width of margin at this point – but have no Ralph Waldo Emerson to buy more than a dozen acres of land and grant them permission to live there. We did end up with Walden, though.)

I’ve been thinking about margins lately: less marginalisation (based on class or gender or colour) than marginalia. And not in the sense, say, of Matthew Hollis on Edward Thomas when he remarks of early 1915 that Thomas ‘would write many poems over the next two years in which the events of the war took place obliquely in the margins of the page: the missing cast of characters who had been killed in France, the unattended garden tools, the rusty harrow, the older men missing their mates, the bereft wives.’[2] I mean it rather more literally.

H. J. Jackson’s well-known Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books examined thousands of volumes annotated by both famous and obscure readers. I recall too William H. Sherman’s Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, from those glory days when I was professionally engaged with the University of Pennsylvania Press and more related titles have turned up in the last few years. William Blake famously—and productively for his modern critics—annotated the Works of Joshua Reynolds, but books by Lavater, Swedenborg, Wordsworth, Berkeley, Francis Bacon and others as well. Also famously, or notoriously, the playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell altered the cover art and publishers’ blurbs of more than seventy books from public libraries, were found guilty of malicious damage and theft, and served several months in prison. Five years later, Halliwell battered Orton to death with a hammer and then killed himself, though I don’t suggest that the one thing invariably follows the other.


(Blake on Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man)

It happens in fiction too. In Lawrence Durrell’s Sebastian or Ruling Passions, he writes of Constance that, ‘In the margin of a book she had borrowed from Sutcliffe she had found the scribbled words: “The same people are also others without realising it.”’[3] (A sentence which neatly encapsulates a fair proportion of that long work, come to think of it.)

For sure, one man’s marginalia is another man’s malicious damage, as one woman’s graffiti is another woman’s street art. In some contexts, to some tastes, yes, such details can be fascinating. Robert Phelps remarked, in a letter to James Salter: ‘Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets . . . how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a “pasticheur.” I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.’[4]

Scribbled notes. Well. . . A few weeks ago, reading Osip Mandelstam, I took out from the university library the ground-breaking 1973 book on Mandelstam by Clarence Brown, strongly recommended by Guy Davenport (a decisive factor in my case). A little way in and the unwanted markings and annotations—frequently in ink—which started as a distraction, steadily developed into annoyance and passed on into the higher state of insuperable obstacle. I abandoned it and looked for secondhand copies online, finally settling on one, its condition described as ‘Very Good’, for sale in the United States. Prepared for a longish wait, I was happy enough with the four weeks it took. When I opened the package, though, I found that it was an ex-library copy, which hadn’t been mentioned in the description. Worse, some noodle or juggins or muggins had scribbled on more than eighty pages – that hadn’t been mentioned either. ‘Very Good’? Hah.


The only saving graces were, firstly, that all the annotations, underlinings, question marks and circlings seemed to be in pencil; secondly, that Cambridge University Press books from the early 1970s—this one, at least—had good quality paper and print, so wielding an eraser only removes the scribble, not the text underneath it. And then sending it back would be a nuisance – it’s a long way from here to Indiana.

I’ve made plenty of pencilled markings in books myself: some of the older ones that survived are pretty embarrassing to revisit – the brief definitions of words perfectly familiar now or reminders to check facts that seem painfully obvious. The point is, I suppose, that I make notes in my own books, not anybody else’s; and certainly not in a library book which is a shared resource, available to all the library’s users – and that availability is rather diminished if half of it’s unreadable because of someone else’s scrawl.

Still, on the upside, my general ignorance to date of Mandelstam’s work and its context will substantially lessen any temptation to pencil notes in the margins, gesturing to various points of the cultural compass. It has to be said that the state of some of my Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound books is a disgrace. . .


[1] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 108; he quotes Thoreau’s Journal, I, 356. The Journal and a great deal more is accessible on the superb website

[2] Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 201.

[3] Lawrence Durrell, Avignon Quintet, one-volume edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), 978.

[4] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 38.


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