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; and even her quotations from unknowns are seldom merely representative. With one or two exceptions they are the fruit of what she calls “curiosity-driven research”—chosen because they are quirky, or touching, or in some way out of the ordinary.

Vladimir Nabokov applying his entomological knowledge to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, complaining that the commentators have got it wrong and that the creature into which Gregor Samsa is transformed can’t be a cockroach; General James Wolfe, on the eve of the victory over the French at Quebec in 1759 which cost him his life, annotating a copy of Gray’s Elegy which had been given to him by his fiancée (he underlines “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”); William Beckford, the author of Vathek, summing up a volume of ballads by Robert Southey as “doodlesome” (a fine scornful word which isn’t in the dictionary)—Jackson’s choice of material tends to be as lively as it is varied.

One of her exhibits is a collection of late-eighteenth-century sermons, annotated throughout “by the same unformed hand,” and with a sudden irrepressible burst of feeling set down on one of the endpapers: “my Dear Mister Brown i love you With all my heart and i Hope you do the same.” Another showpiece, at some remove, is a glimpse of Gibbon, momentarily widening his perspective as he marks up the first edition of the Decline and Fall with a view to revision. In the text, he had asserted that the fall of Rome was an event “which will always be remembered and is still felt” by the whole world—“the nations of the earth.” Alongside this he now wrote: “NB. Mr Hume told me that in correcting his history, he always laboured to reduce superlatives, and soften positives. Have Asia and Africa, from Japan to Morocco, any feeling or memory of the Roman Empire?” (When it came to the new edition, however, and to later ones, the original wording was allowed to stand.)


An especially interesting case is that of the admirable Hester Lynch Piozzi—Dr. Johnson’s friend, still best known by the name under which she went during her middle years, Mrs. Thrale. In his life of Piozzi (1941), James L. Clifford expressed regret that the marginalia with which she filled hundreds of books had been dispersed in a series of sales following her death. Jackson has retrieved a handful of them, drawing on previously unpublished sources, and the examples she cites have a racy or gossipy charm. They include the story of an Irish lady of Piozzi’s acquaintance who attributed her success at cards to the help of “a Lypercorn Fairy” (a leprechaun), and the report of a joke going around among the Prince Regent’s courtiers which claimed that his official motto, Ich Dien—“I Serve”—actually meant “dying of the itch” (a less than loyal allusion to venereal disease).

But these are only snippets, and Piozzi is also one of Jackson’s star turns. The longest chapter in Marginalia, “Object Lessons,” consists of four case studies, designed to illustrate some of the rewards which a careful reading of marginalia can confer; the first of them is devoted to a copy of Dr. Johnson’s philosophical fable Rasselas which Piozzi annotated while she was living in Bath in 1819. (Long widowed, she was then in her seventy-ninth year.)

Her annotations range from underlinings to extended anecdotes. There are moral reflections and reminiscences of Johnson; the originals of characters are identified; the chapter containing a “dissertation on the art of flying” prompts a skeptical glance at the craze for ballooning (“& now they have learned the Art, & now that they do tower into the Air:…What’s the Result? Nothing”). All these reactions, or the ones Jackson quotes, bear witness to a strong character; but what gives them added unity, and poignancy, is that they were set down for the benefit of a man nearly fifty years Piozzi’s junior, to whom she had become passionately attached—William Augustus Conway, the leading man in the local theater company.

The book was one of her gifts to him, which would be enough in itself to endow it with a high degree of human interest. But many of her marks and comments also have an obvious bearing on her situation. She reflects on the disparity between youth and age, on solitude, on her undying need for affection. (“Enjoyment implies Friendship—one can enjoy nothing alone—at least I cannot. H.L.P.”) And at one point the object of her yearning assumes a specific shape. Alongside a passage in the tale which describes a visit to the Pyramids, she writes: “Coptic Mythology at last comes in as an Auxiliary you see—will it help me to endure the Absence of Mr. Conway?”

Johnson looms large in Marginalia—if not as an annotator himself, then as an object of annotation.* Two of Jackson’s four “object lessons” are Johnsonian: in addition to Piozzi on Rasselas, she examines a first edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson with “copious ms. notes” (the British Library catalog description) by someone who called himself “Scriblerus.” And in a subsequent chapter she takes Boswell as her example when she wants to trace the fortunes of a major work at the hands of a whole series of annotators.

The “Scriblerus” section is the most original in the book. It is clear from what he writes that Scriblerus knew a number of members of Johnson’s circle quite well, and that he had met Johnson himself, but until now his identity has remained a mystery. Jackson establishes beyond reasonable doubt that he was in fact Fulke Greville, a diplomat, minor man of letters, patron of the arts, and scion of a famous aristocratic family. (His forebear, Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, was the friend and biographer of Sir Philip Sidney, and author of the celebrated lines that begin, “Oh wearisome Condition of Humanity!”) It also seems as good as certain that the notes were intended for Boswell’s eyes, at a time when the second edition of the Life of Johnson was being prepared, and that Boswell saw them, though without acting on any of their suggestions.

This is not surprising. While Greville acknowledges Johnson’s greatness and professes respect for Boswell’s talents, he mostly registers objections—to Johnson’s rough manners and rugged prejudices, to Boswell’s indiscretions about the lesser actors in the story (“Bozzy, Thou art an absolute Idiot to print this”) and his excessive veneration for his hero. “Still you go on—“ he exclaims at one point, “he is the only man of Sense or the first in the world. for gods sake Mr. B cease this mania & be your Self.” You wonder whether he really thought adopting such a tone was the best way of getting Boswell to change his mind.


Yet his criticisms, or those Jackson quotes, are seldom merely carping. Most of the points he makes are reasonable ones, and the reader who disagrees with him is frequently put on the defensive. When Johnson talks about “a gloomy, frigid, ungenial summer,” for example, Greville snaps back from the margin, “why cant you say Cold like the rest of ye world?” If you relish Johnson’s style to the full, your first impulse is probably to protest that this is simplistic, that the three-pronged description has its own distinctive eloquence. But to explain exactly why would call for a paragraph or two of analysis, and even a brief excursion into the nature of eighteenth-century rhetoric. (It is amusing to find Greville using a comparable trio of adjectives himself, incidentally, when he sums up Sir Joshua Reynolds’s character in one of his notes as “Cool Cautious and Phlegmatic.”)

The Greville annotations, once their background has been supplied, constitute something like a short story—a tale of contrasting temperaments and social origins in the case of Greville and Johnson, and rival literary ambitions in the case of Greville and Boswell. (Greville may well have been contemplating a memoir of his own.) The whole episode focuses attention on an interesting corner of eighteenth-century culture—and the notes are true marginalia in their air of spontaneity and unconsidered response. You feel that if Greville had set down his reflections on Boswell in a separate notebook, they wouldn’t have had the same immediacy.

Jackson’s remaining “object lessons” are less satisfying. One is a student handbook on poetry, published in 1909 and annotated by Rupert Brooke while he was an undergraduate at Cambridge; the other is a copy of Jung’s Two Essays on Analytical Psychology annotated by T.H. White, author of the sequence of Arthurian novels The Once and Future King—probably while he was working as a schoolmaster around 1930, when he was in his early twenties. The Brooke volume testifies to the poet’s intense interest in verse technique, but you would have to be very devoted to his work to find it positively engrossing. (Personally I would rather have heard something, however technical, about another textbook annotated by a poet which Jackson mentions in passing, the copy of Billiards: Its Theory and Practice which belonged to Thomas Hardy.) The T.H. White volume is more curious. As his comments make clear, reading Jung confirmed him in his preference for Freud, and he appears to have given up reading the book about a quarter of the way through. But before he did, he had been provoked into writing a lengthy note on an endpaper (since there wasn’t room at the appropriate place in the text)—in effect, an experiment in free association.

An extract will give some idea of the note’s general flavor:

Taut or tight. Rum made me tight. I laughed because I was tight. Rum-Bum. Bum Rum. Queer bum. I laughed because it was queer—because my subconscious and I coincided in regoc (recognising) that the preoccupation with bums was queer. Regoc. Cock. Recock-nition. (I smile) Ignition. Ignatius. Loyaler. Coincided with the recock-nition (re-upholstering or renovation of cock) that bums dont work. But we both know this. Come, unconscious revenons à nos moutons. Revenants. Ghosts. Ibsen….

There is a good deal more of the same kind, a weaving together of recurrent private obsessions. It is all undeniably interesting. But how much difference does it make that formally at least, it is a marginal note? It might just as easily have been an entry in a journal, or an exercise undertaken for a psychotherapist.

If the sections on Brooke and White yield less than might have been hoped, many of the minor items which Jackson discusses are more disappointing still. As she works her way through her copies of Boswell, for instance, she comes to a Modern Library edition which belonged to the young Elizabeth Bishop. Curiosity naturally quickens, but it is dashed as soon as you learn that although there are numerous markings and underlinings in the book, Bishop was only once moved to set down an observation of her own. (She compares a passage she has marked to “a note for Proust”—which sounds bright, but not so momentous that you feel inclined to follow it up.) At other times, Jackson owns to being disappointed herself. She lists a number of cases in which the

combination of reader and writer whets the appetite but “reality lets you down.” They include Bentham on Burke, Wallace Stevens on Wordsworth, E.E. Cummings on Simone de Beauvoir, and Gertrude Stein on Harriet Beecher Stowe.

She consoles herself with the thought that “the imagination makes do with very little.” We can still speculate about might-have-beens. “What might those readers have made of those writers? What should they have said?” Pursue such reflections far enough, she claims, and you have a “thought-experiment,” a dialogue with the dead. Which is no doubt true; but at this point we have left marginalia a long way behind us and are talking about association copies.

After a time, you start wondering whether “marginalia studies” constitute a real subject, and whether Jackson would not have done better to adopt a looser, more essayistic approach. There are signs that she herself feels a tug in that direction. She admits to lingering over obscure or atypical material for no better reason than that it appeals to her; she proclaims the pleasures of serendipity. But since academe is academe, mere discursiveness won’t do. She also hopes that her individual case histories and “specific reading encounters” will mount up “to a point at which they will become susceptible of legitimate generalization.” At her most ambitious she talks as though she were staking out the territory for a whole new discipline.

Her account of the purely physical aspects of annotation seems commendably thorough. Readers without a taste for bibliographical detail may find some of it pedestrian (“One of the great dividers of kind is the medium used: are the notes in pencil, or in ink?”), but there are good-humored digressions to liven things up—on the admonitions against theft which often accompany ownership signatures, for instance, especially those of children. A textbook which belonged to a schoolboy in Ontario in the 1890s furnishes a robust example: “Steal not this book for fear of life for the owner has a big jackknife.”

When she turns to the history of marginalia, Jackson first traces their origins to the ancient devices of glosses, rubrics, and scholia (a gloss was an interlinear explanation; a scholium was the exact equivalent of a marginal note); she then constructs a historical framework, complete with somewhat fanciful names, for the era of the printed book. She dubs the period before 1700 the Kingdom of Competition, the period between 1700 and 1820 the Kingdom of Sociability, and the period since 1820 the Kingdom of Subjectivity. After these kingdoms have been introduced, however, we hardly ever hear of them again, and the whole scheme offers only limited historical guidance. Annotators before 1700 often quarreled with their texts, or among themselves; eighteenth- century annotators were more inclined to circulate their views and share them with others; readers since 1820 have generally thought of annotation as “a private affair, a matter of self-expression.” But we are talking about tendencies, not about hard and fast distinctions. There are abundant exceptions in every period.

Jackson’s discussion of the reasons that prompt people to write marginalia has more meat in it. Her two main points are, first, that once we move beyond the strictly utilitarian note-taking of students, book reviewers, and the like, marginalia almost always imply a third party—they are “the product of an interaction between text and reader carried on in the presence of silent witnesses” (i.e., anyone else who may subsequently read them); and second, that annotators are best considered as writers themselves, and susceptible to the same range of emotions as other writers: “Love, anger, pity, ambition, spite, emulation, partisanship—any and all of these may show up.”

The more elaborate a note, one might add, the more significant the notion of an addressee is likely to be. Most notes, when they express an opinion, are probably confined to exclamations of the boo/hurrah variety: their main purpose is simply letting off steam. But with one or two exceptions the examples Jackson examines are more substantial. They give the writer room to establish a distinctive voice or play to an audience.

We have Ezra Pound, for instance, using his notes in a copy of Swinburne to dissociate himself from the notes of a previous owner. We have Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde—several of Jackson’s most telling examples are taken from fiction—reading a pious work for which Dr. Jekyll had expressed admiration and defacing it with “startling blasphemies.” We have Mark Twain, tearing to shreds the prose style of a translation of Tacitus. (It must have been a happy moment for Twain when he came across a reference to a senator called Arretinus Clemens who was also appointed commander of the praetorian guard, a position his father had held before him. “The same name,” Tacitus explained, “would be welcome to the soldiers,” and it was thought that he was “able to discharge the duties of both stations.” “An error of judgment,” Twain wrote in the margin. “There was never yet a Clemens who could creditably fill two stations at the same time.”)

The liveliest marginalia tend to be acts of dissent, though many of them might just as aptly be described as acts of self-assertion. Jackson quotes a telltale passage from Thomas De Quincey, who in the course of his reminiscences of Wordsworth complained that the poet “rarely, indeed, wrote on the margin of books; and when he did, nothing could less illustrate his intellectual superiority. The comments were such as might have been made by anybody.” As Jackson says, the implication is that an annotator “ought to demonstrate ‘intellectual superiority'”—over “the ordinary run of readers” (and presumably, in many cases, over the text as well).

Marginalia certainly provide an opportunity for showing off, but the best of them are seldom as nakedly competitive as this suggests. Their positive qualities are what recommend them, not the mere desire to shine. Nor are motives necessarily of much consequence. The annotator who makes a factual correction, for instance, may or may not be preening himself on his superiority. But does it matter? Either way he is performing a useful service for readers who come after him.

As she gathers the threads together, Jackson embarks on what she rather grandly terms a “poetics” of marginalia—an attempt to establish “criteria making for best and worst practice.” You wonder what kind of general theory she can extract from such diverse material, and the answer is, not much of one.

She begins by proposing that readers’ notes must be judged “partly by the standards that apply to the original or host genre (good recipes in cookbooks, up-to-date addresses in directories), partly by the general rules of composition, and partly by special laws of their own.” In concentrating on the third of these three categories, she warns us that she may initially seem “to belabor the obvious”—and so, alas, it proves, not only in the opening stages of her argument, but throughout. We learn, among other things, that marginalia should be intelligible, that they should be relevant to the work they appear in, and that they should be honest (“preferably correct also, but at least truthful as far as the annotator was concerned at the time of annotation”).

Fortunately the generalizations are interspersed with concrete examples. An unidentified Victorian woman reads Middlemarch not long after it was published, dislikes it, and then slowly comes around to recognizing its virtues. A professor of philosophy at the University of Texas takes issue, cogently, with The Education of Henry Adams. Gertrude Stein inscribes a single gnomic sentence in a copy of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, on the title page: “I am very pleased with myself for having done so.” And although the reader’s heart sinks a little at one of Jackson’s more solemn pronouncements—“Humor is generally welcome in marginalia”—at least it leads on to a brief account of the embellishments, purportedly made by the royal author herself, with which Max Beerbohm adorned his copy of Queen Victoria’s More Leaves from a Journal of Our Life in the Highlands. Among the examples Jackson quotes is the dedication, “for Mr Beerbohm/the never-sufficiently-to-be-studied writer/ whom Albert looks down on affectionately,/I am sure—/From his Sovereign/ Victoria R.I./Balmoral, 1898.” (It is a pity, though, that Jackson cuts short the quotation at “affectionately”: perfection is important in such matters.)

The quest for marginalia could be extended indefinitely, and it is bound to bring pleasing or rewarding items to light. But that still leaves the question of how much future there is for marginalia studies as a systematic pursuit.

Jackson argues persuasively for the benefits (often slighted, she suggests) which marginal notes can offer historians, editors, and biographers. In summing up, however, her trump card remains their potential role in illuminating the history of reading and reader-response. Not all historians of reading agree with her—some find marginalia too random or “anecdotal” to serve as hard evidence—but here too she makes out her case with moderation and good sense. The only snag is that the representative marginal note, the one which usefully confirms a widespread trend, is also likely to be the dull marginal note; and conversely, the livelier or more distinctive a note is, the less appropriate it seems to treat it as a mere gauge of public opinion.

Discussing the light which marginalia can shed on shifts in literary taste, for instance, Jackson cites some supercilious remarks which William Beckford made in a copy of Dr. Johnson’s Diary of a Journey into North Wales in 1816, thirty years after Johnson’s death, and commends them for their historical value: they show Beckford, “in the company of many of his generation,” turning against Johnson and rejecting his authority. But the exotic, extravagant, enormously wealthy Beckford was one of the least representative Englishmen of his time. No doubt his views coincided with those of some of his contemporaries in some respects, but he is the last person one would nominate as a spokesman for his generation.

His disdain for Johnson still makes a good story, however. It is the gifted or unusual annotators who give Jackson’s book much of its edge, and who redeem it from dullness even when the material itself is unexciting. At one point, for instance, Jackson argues that while for many readers annotating with single words or brief phrases is nothing more than “a careless habit,” for others “it appears to be an intellectual discipline that keeps them alert.” As an example of the latter she takes a seventeenth-century book, Sir Francis Drake Revived, which was annotated in the nineteenth century by a reader who puzzled away at the text, raising questions and making connections as he went along. Most of the notes which she quotes are, it must be admitted, unremarkable: “Panama—first mention?” “Fleche?” (next to the word “fletcher”), “Where?” “don’t understand at all.” But the passage still has its interest, entirely derived from the fact that the reader was John Ruskin, and that it tells you something about his preoccupations and habits of mind.

The history of reading is a highly democratic undertaking—a good deal more democratic than the distribution of literary talent. Jackson has made an original contribution to the study of reader-response, and marked out a path for others to follow. But much of the time she also allows her literary instincts free play, and it is her feeling for books and authors that gives Marginalia most of its charm.

This Issue

November 29, 2001