The Reader Strikes Back

It was Coleridge who launched the Latin word “marginalia” on its English career. In his mid-thirties, around 1807, he began to be known for his habit of annotating books in elaborate detail. (He had been more abstemious when he was young.) Friends cherished his scribbled comments, and encouraged him to mark up copies of their own books; and in 1819, when he decided to publish some notes which he had jotted down many years before in a volume by Sir Thomas Browne, the as yet unfamiliar term Marginalia was the title he chose.

His annotations, like those of Blake or Keats, have long since acquired the status of literature in their own right. They bear the full stamp of his personality: they are learned, discursive, sometimes inspired, sometimes humorous, often eloquent. They are also, unlike those of Blake or Keats, extensive. His comments on around 450 individual works survive, in the form of some 8,000 separate notes. When it is complete, the modern edition which brings them together (as part of the Princeton Collected Works) will run to six volumes.

Meanwhile H.J. Jackson, who is co-editor of the Princeton Marginalia, has produced a general study of “readers writing in books” (anywhere in books where there is blank space, that is: marginalia aren’t literally confined to margins). It, too, is entitled Marginalia, and naturally Coleridge plays a prominent part in its pages. But he only represents one end of the spectrum. At the other stands the “reader-annotated book of the present day,” which Jackson describes in imaginary but all too recognizable detail:

Somebody has used yellow highlighter to mark significant passages—most of the text, it seems. Perhaps it was the same person who scribbled some page numbers in ballpoint pen inside the back cover, with the odd word to show what subject the page numbers refer to, and who wrote a disparaging comment on the title page, just under the author’s name. If it is a library book, there is no way of telling who marked it up, but if it is private property, the owner’s name will almost certainly be on the first blank page inside the cover, at the top right-hand corner. If it is left behind on a bus, nobody will carry it off: it is unlovable and unsalable.

To dwell on such markings at length would be an unappetizing task, and Jackson doesn’t attempt to. Strictly speaking, however, they come within her purview. Her declared aim is nothing less than “to describe and illustrate the behavior of annotators in the English-speaking world during the past three centuries,” and she is interested in their handiwork not only on its own account, but also for the sake of its potential contribution to “studies of reception and reader response.”

In practice, she is much more selective and less sociological than this might suggest. Some of the annotations she discusses are by obscure or anonymous figures, but most of them are by established authors …

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