‘Très vrai!’

Leah Price

  • Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books by H.J. Jackson
    Yale, 324 pp, £19.95, April 2001, ISBN 0 300 08816 7

The primal scene of Marginalia takes place at a book-signing by the children’s writer Maurice Sendak. Pushed to the front of the queue by his star-struck parents, a boy begs Sendak not to ‘crap up my book’. Jackson’s central question – are marginalia crap? – has no simple answer, for her study uncovers our passionate ambivalence about unauthorised writing. One might not expect anyone to care enough about marginalia to love them or hate them, but Jackson shows that we do both at once. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Sendak, Flann O’Brien proposed a marginalia-faking service for nouveaux riches who’d bought up libraries they had no intention of reading: ‘suitable passages in not less than 50 per cent of the books to be underlined in good-quality red ink and an appropriate phrase from the following list inserted in the margin, viz: Rubbish! Yes, indeed! How true, how true! I don’t agree at all. Why? Yes, but cf Homer, Od., iii, 151.’ Handwritten additions to printed books can indicate attention or carelessness, can embellish a work or deface it. In crass economic terms, writing in a book may decrease its value (Jackson had to rummage through library sale rejects to find specimens of late 20th-century textbooks marked in fluorescent highlighter) or multiply it exponentially (when the annotator happens to be Galileo or Nelson Mandela).

Marginalia challenges previous historians’ pious assumption that audience participation is inherently democratic. Because Jackson emphasises ordinary readers’ annotations rather than authors’ autograph manuscripts – or, more precisely, focuses on the moment when readers turn into writers – her project appears to be an example of literary critics’ recent shift from analysing a few great authors to recovering the experience of otherwise anonymous consumers. Decentring is the order of the day. Yet our resentment at Islington Public Library for prosecuting Joe Orton (his marginal annotations were deemed ‘obscene’) depends on our knowledge that Orton was himself a published writer. Coleridge realised as much: his friends lent him copies of their books to be returned with annotations (‘you will not mind my having spoiled a book in order to leave a Relic’).

When readers talk back, they’re not just denying the author the last word but also daring subsequent readers to trespass. One Canadian copy of a textbook with the resonant title of Third Reader bears the inscription: ‘Steal not this book for fear of life for the owner has a big jack-knife.’ Jackson’s sharpest insight is that annotations buttonhole not only the author of the printed book, but future readers of the marked-up copy, who can respond by preserving (Southey traced over Coleridge’s pencil jottings in ink) or destroying (a copy of The Life of Wolf Tone bears marginalia scored out and rephrased by a second, more polite annotator). Ezra Pound’s second-hand copy of Swinburne is inscribed: ‘Some damn fool had this book before I bought it. I am not responsible for the notes in his handwriting.’ Marginalia show reading to be sociable and competitive at the same time.

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