That thing called Marginalia


marginalia [ˌmɑːdʒɪˈneɪlɪə]

pl n

(Literary & Literary Critical Terms) notes in the margin of a book, manuscript, or letter

[New Latin, noun (neuter plural) from marginālis marginal]

I, along with plenty of book lovers, have a concealed fascination for marginalia. The scribbles and notes of former readers are not meant to be ‘spoilers’, but instead tell us that a reader has given time and tangibility to their own thought and reading processes, and wanted to mark the book for future references. As a Librarian, I can remember many an hour on the Issue desk rubbing out marginalia or ‘repairing’ the book so that it was not visible. But as an avid reader, I have marked my books in different ways ~ with pencil notes, neon coloured sticky page markers, and more recently using the notes field facility on my Kindle.


I am enthralled by a former readers’ intellection, captivated by the hidden enchantments, and most certainly in an almost voyeuristic way, enchanted by the handwriting.

‘There has recently been a slight but noticeable escalation of interest in marginalia, partly because of the way in which the Internet has cultivated readers’ enthusiasm for discussion of their own reading practices and peculiarities, and partly because of a preëmptive nostalgia for the book as a tangible (and scrawlable) object at a time of increasing e-reader ubiquity. ‘ ~ The New Yorker, Mark O’Connell January 2012

Edgar Allan Poe, not known for his notes in books wrote in his Marginalia, 1844-1849, ‘In getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general. Where what I have to note is too much to be included within the narrow limits of a margin, I commit it to a slip of paper, and deposit it between the leaves; taking care to secure it by an imperceptible portion of gum tragacanth paste. ‘

‘The intellectual is, quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.’ ~ George Steiner


In education, we are taught to ‘read with a pencil’ – but not the Library copy of the book!


Marginalia is a revealing business. It gives us provenance, copy-specific evidence, and a passage into the thoughts of other readers, who may just turn out to be someone significant in history. Doesn’t ‘reading with a pencil’ also tell you something about yourself? You are taking the time to consider what has taken the author sometimes years to have written.


‘thoughts from scarlettlibrarian’


3 thoughts on “That thing called Marginalia

  1. In a copy of Samuel Beckett’s Watt, I found, on the very first page of the text scrawled across the top: “You’re supposed to like Watt”.

    I don’t know if that was a note to remember about the character, or the book itself. I’d like to think that whoever wrote it was having a very difficult time reading the book, and just had to write a note of compulsory encouragement. You’re supposed to like this! What’s wrong with you! Keep reading!

  2. Pingback: Book magick | Books and Library stuff

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