Marginalia and Its Disruptions

By S. Brent PlateDecember 16, 2015

Marginalia and Its Disruptions

DURING MY FIRST teaching gig out of graduate school I was reading some philosophical tome in the University of Vermont library. Years later I don’t recall the book’s title, but I do remember the marginalia that was scrawled in not-too-neat/not-too-messy letters alongside a paragraph, about a third of the way through the book. It read:

I was wasted in the afternoon.

The line was instantly recognizable because it was the start of a then-popular Counting Crows song, “Goodnight Elisabeth.” In its marginal context, however, the phrase had nothing to do with the text. I reread the pages near the marginalia a few times, trying to establish some intellectual link, to no avail. Its appearance remained a mystery.

Maybe she or he was wasted while trying to read the book. Or maybe she or he wanted to be wasted instead of reading the book. Or maybe they were just listening to a song they liked on their Walkman and the lyrics punctuated their own biblio-bound afternoon.

Regardless, damn it, someone had defaced a book, inserted their selfish longings into the hard work of writer, printer, librarian, and countless others responsible for the preservation and continuation of knowledge itself. This scrawl was a glitch in the system. And it derailed my scholarly ambitions for the afternoon. It wasted my afternoon.

Claire Fallon, culture writer at the Huffington Post, might agree with my frustrations. She’s not against jotting notes in the margins (with pencil, neatly and lightly marked) but offers more of a pro-conservationist account of book interaction. Books should be “loved,” she writes, but also “carefully preserved,” with uncracked spines, no coffee stains or dog-ears.

Fallon writes partially in response to what Laura Miller, over at Salon, noted as “marginalia’s moment,” pulling together evidence from Tim Parks’s writings at The New York Review of Books, and the recently formed Oxford University Marginalia group on Facebook, which already has over 4,000 members. The Los Angeles Review of Books even has a religious history channel that goes by the name “Marginalia.” Princeton Historian Anthony Grafton gleefully agrees with this “moment,” opening a recent NYRB essay with the statement, “Marginalia are on the march.”

While there has been a growing conversation about the role of marginalia in the past two decades — including several library and art exhibitions devoted to the subject, studies like H. J. Jackson’s Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (2001), and many of Grafton’s own books and essays — the debate about the appropriateness of writing in books is quite old. Considering marginalia have been found in texts for as long as there have been books, scrolls, or writings on papyrus, it seems odd to say that now is the moment. But indeed it may be. There is an obvious reason for this, and a less obvious one.


Why is this conversation occurring now? The obvious reason is a skulking nostalgia for the “old” printed word, shuffled in amidst myriad essays on the “future of the book,” which tend to hold on to the codex with trepidation and the occasional resilience (“You can take my book when you pry it from my cold, dead hand”). Very few of the current writers discuss marginalia without wondering, and sometimes worrying, about its place in digital culture. If the book is an endangered species, then so are its margins.

It strikes me as appropriate that the Oxford University Marginalia group is growing within a popular internet site, while the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles, begun in 1950, had to shut its doors in 2000 (they’ve since reopened). One of the best-known bibliophiles of the Oxford group was John Sparrow, who famously gave a four-part lesson to anyone who loves and wants to have a collection of books: never lend anyone a book, never sell a book, never give anyone a book, never read a book. Sparrow’s cheekiness notwithstanding, the comment is indicative of the smoothness of the slope from bibliophilia to bibliolatry. The zenith of the conjunction between mass production and elite education is the fetishized book. Books are too sacred to be defiled with marginalia, dog-ears, or cracked spines. (Such put-on-a-pedestal reverence gives way to religious fundamentalism, a book-oriented, intrinsically modern movement that can only appear at the high point of print culture, but that’s another story.) Needless to say, this fetishization cannot be sustained, even as the digital’s iconoclastic tendencies are bemoaned.

To this day, digital traces of skimmed, read, and lingered-over pages remain elusive. Aside from the Kindle’s “39 other people highlighted this part of the book,” we have a long way to go before our newer reading habits become public in the same way as the old graphite or, heaven forbid, inked scribbles. There is the continued promise of interactive reading with online platforms such as blogs, tweets, comment sections, Facebook posts, and a host of various projects aimed at curating marginal comments and showing ongoing interactions, but the ephemerality of digital marginalia constantly threatens to repress or ignore longstanding practices of literate engagement.

One response is to transfer the old bookish marginalia to new media. The Oxford University Marginalia Facebook group remains an informal gathering open to the public, and one can scroll through hundreds of images of found pages with curious, and often hilarious, markings. Meanwhile, Andrew Stauffer at the University of Virginia is taking a more structured approach. Concerned about the disappearance of millions of books on bookshelves as libraries are converted into digital collections, Stauffer has been collecting photos and transcriptions of book pages and putting them up at This is “a crowd-sourced web project aimed at identifying unique copies of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century books on library shelves. Our focus is on customizations made by original owners in personal copies, primarily in the form of marginalia and inserts.”

The dismay over the potential loss of marginalia is not merely a matter of curated curiosity, an abstract, possibly eclectic collecting of what quaint things readers had to say back in the day. For many, marginalia is rife with socio-political undertones. In her Salon essay, Miller nicely sums up the pro-marginalia protestations: “Marginalia is a blow struck against the idea that reading is a one-way process, that readers simply open their minds and the great, unmediated thoughts of the author pour in.”

Miller’s statement stands as the de facto credo for the past quarter century of marginalia’s prophets, particularly beginning with Michael Camille’s masterful 1992 study, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. Camille shows how marginalia upends the hierarchy of the main body of verbal text with marginal images and notes. “Once the manuscript page becomes a matrix of visual signs and is no longer one of flowing linear speech,” Camille writes, “the stage is set not only for supplementation and annotation but also for disagreement and juxtaposition—what the scholastics called disputatio.”

The margins are sites of engagement and disagreement: between text and reader and, to stretch it tenuously further, between author and reader. From Talmudic studies to legal amendments, margins have been the places where texts have been kept alive — alive because they’ve been read and responded to. Modern democratic society itself, which arguably would have been impossible without books and print, is based on interactions that both produce, and are produced by, a collapsing of power. This occurs not just through the mass production and consumption of literature, pamphlets, and the news of the world — making knowledge accessible to more people — but engagement with the production of knowledge. Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility” exalts the rise of the Letters to the Editor section of newspapers so that “at any moment the reader is ready to become a writer.” Marginalia operates in a similar matter, turning readers into writers, and upsetting the hierarchy of the author as authority.

How New Media alter and resituate these power dynamics is part of what is at stake in the current debate.


There is a second, less obvious reason for marginalia’s moment, joined to the first at an obtuse angle, and that is the diminishing status of the human body. If the book is being threatened with extinction in the wake of the digital, the human body is even more so. Essays, movies, novels, speculations, and suspicions pervade contemporary culture concerning artificial intelligence, robotics, and the “singularity.” Ray Kurzweil’s future — replicated in films like Ex Machina, television shows like Caprica, and precursed by the disembodied HAL and Philip K. Dick — foresees a jacked-in consciousness, with little left of a sensate body that moves and breathes and reads.

Make no mistake, scholarly and intellectual life has been denying the body for most of modernity. Chalk it up to Cartesian dualism or whatever, but the production of knowledge has consistently been built on thoughts without bodies. In his 1997 book Sensuous Scholarship, anthropologist Paul Stoller pointed out a division of scholarly labor between the body and mind, and in so doing he revealed a deeper, dormant desire:

Stiffened from long sleep in the background of scholarly life, the scholar’s body yearns to exercise its muscles. Sleepy from long inactivity, it aches to restore sensibilities. Adrift in a sea of half-lives, it wants to breathe in the pungent odors of social life, to run its palms over the jagged surface of social reality, to hear the wondrous symphonies of social experience, to see the sensuous shapes and colors that fill windows of consciousness.

Stoller is not talking scribbles in scholarly books here, but I suggest that what he puts his finger on is the same corporeal desire that leads to marginalia. The prioritizing of text over margin is mirrored in the prioritizing of mind over body. And the repressed inevitably returns.

What we find in marginalia is not simply a place of intellectual disputation, two minds duking it out, but a site for the body to awaken from its long sleep and dispute the mind. In reality, reading is sensual: we read with our eyes, or in the case of braille and other practices, with our fingers. But the rational page (carefully kerned and serifed typeface, fully justified blocks of text) cuts off the sensate body, channeling our mindful intentions into its rectilinear prison, making us feel we have direct communication, jacked in. The rigid text has its uses, though messy bodies need not apply.

“I was wasted in the afternoon” is a phrasing of bodily being, situated in time, filled with desire, perhaps nostalgia. Even if, and perhaps especially if, the scribbler was just recalling a song she liked. The Vermont student was not alone, and part of what a history of marginalia tells us is that wherever we find scribbles, we also find expressions of somatic strivings. Modern and Medieval marginalia is resplendent with such fleshy wishes. In the Lapham’s Quarterly special issue on “Means of Communication” a few years ago, there was a small collection of these curious marginalia from the Middle Ages. Instead of intellectual disputation, we find such nuggets as:

“I am very cold.”

“The parchment is hairy.”

“Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.”

And, the Vermont student gets a barroom buddy: “Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.”

In the margins, carnal cravings spring forth, breaking the justified, rational lines of the printed or scribed page. The expressions of the body attach themselves to the intellectual pursuits found in the main text. Marginalia, as Miller noted earlier, emerge as a blow to the “one-way reading process.” At the same time, it is a bodily blow to the dominance of the mind. Our eyes lift from the page and we shift in our seats, feeling the cold room, the tingling in our legs, the rub of the pages in our fingers, and a groan surfaces.

What is at stake with the perceived threat of the loss of marginalia is not simply an abstract power dynamic between the authority of the author and the passively receiving reader. Power relations are multiple, shifting between words, from images to words, intellect to intellect, bodies to minds. Marginalia is a mournful expression of the loss of a body.


S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief. His most recent book is A History of Religion in 5½ Objects (Beacon Press).

LARB Contributor

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College and co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief. His writings have been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Religion Dispatches. His books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World and Blasphemy: Art that Offends.


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