‘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.

Although Marginalia covers the past three centuries, Jackson dates our most acute anxieties about marginalia to the Public Libraries Act of 1850. When she extended her search for modern marked-up books beyond university libraries, she was disappointed to find most volumes pristine. The mute margins of what Jackson calls ‘career library books’ – the growing number of volumes that go straight from publisher to public collections – testify to increasingly hands-off reading practices. Anyone who owes their literacy to US elementary schools will remember the removable stickers and plastic covers that quarantined each successive reader from any trace of grubby-handed predecessors. Remote-control page-turning mechanisms now allow users of the British Library to read rare books under glass: like safe sex, responsible reading has become disembodied. This might have pleased the late Victorian contributors to the Lancet who campaigned for library books to be disinfected. But it’s difficult to make readers’ experience purely cerebral. In one of many suggestive footnotes, Jackson describes Alan Bennett reading a library book in which a paragraph has been marked with a crooked line: ‘I pay the passage special attention without finding it particularly rewarding. As I turn the page the line moves.’ The line is a hair.

The distinction between good and bad marginalia is no more self-evident than the distinction between antiques and junk. Readers of a used (or should that be ‘pre-owned’?) book must face up to the evidence that someone else has already been there: far from exploring virgin territory, we become only the last in a line. Marginalia crystallise a fundamental tension between our culture’s belief that reading should be solitary – even solipsistic – and our collective desire for some communion with previous readers. But the ambivalence that marginalia provoke also betrays a tension between the ideal of readerly passivity (should one give oneself up to the text, be lost in a book, too deeply absorbed to reach for the highlighter?) and the imperative to make the book one’s own. (Jackson argues, counter-intuitively but compellingly, that short annotations reveal more sustained engagement with a text than longer ones.) Can a book mark us if we mark it?

Professional literary historians feel a different kind of ambivalence about marginalia. Annotations are parasitic, dispersed, hard to generalise about and even harder to find. (Jackson’s book concludes with a plea to library cataloguers to identify marked-up books more systematically.) But those same features make them repositories for kinds of historical evidence that stand-alone genres like the letter and the diary can only occasionally provide. Marginalised social groups are more likely to annotate books by others than to produce books of their own. Reciprocally, margins make efficient carriers of text: some jottings survive because of the value of the book that contains them, where freestanding notes in the same hand would have been discarded. Reception historians who chart audiences’ changing reactions to particular literary texts have long trawled the margins of a few famous books for quotable ‘responses’, but Marginalia largely rejects this opportunism. Although Jackson pauses at times to engage in local detective work – scanning one marked-up textbook, for example, for clues to Rupert Brooke’s views on metre – her greatest innovation is to try to analyse marginalia as a genre with its own internal logic. Readers have no more consciousness of being taught to annotate than of being taught to breathe: each annotator sees his or her symbols as a private code. Yet, as Jackson shows, annotating is in fact a socially transmitted and highly imitative technique.

But Jackson’s bold ambition to codify the conventions of marginalia sits uneasily with her attention to special cases, one-offs, curiosities: quite literally, to marginality. Scholars of reader response have long faced grammatical dilemmas – should one speak of ‘the reader’, ‘a reader’, ‘readers’? – and this book is no exception. When Jackson concludes in the plural that ‘readers . . . understood the caricatures of stereotypes in Johnson’s fictions to have been also portraits of individuals,’ one is tempted to rejoin that the marginalia from which she extrapolates this fact are the work of a single reader – and not just any reader. The annotator in question is Hester Thrale, whose friendship with Samuel Johnson would have given her atypical motives (and opportunities) to read his fiction à clef.

On the other hand, it’s striking how closely the reading style that she attributes to Thrale resembles Jackson’s own: a scrupulous attention to particulars which chafes against the occasional generalisation about types. ‘Their collective portrait can only be a group portrait of individuals,’ Jackson writes of one set of annotators, and Marginalia itself subordinates structural patterns to individual cases. The chapter devoted to ‘Fanatics’ features one reader who bound a biography of Handel in a fragment of the velvet in which the wife of his patron’s namesake was buried, and another who annotated the works of the late 18th-century prophet Joanna Southcott in a manuscript imitation of the printed glosses in the King James Bible. To pigeonhole such books as the ‘work of nutters’ contributes nothing towards a systematic theory of marginalia – except, perhaps, the insight that marginalia lend themselves to both marginalised people (those who have no access to publishing books of their own) and marginal ideas. Idiosyncrasy gives Jackson’s examples their charm. Yet her insistence that ‘for all these general truths, there are endless individual variations’ undercuts the chapter on ‘Poetics’, whose structuralist title invokes the more perverse insistence of 1960s theorists that the object of criticism is not individual utterances, but rather the general rules that make them thinkable.

It’s characteristic that Jackson’s distinction between productive and destructive marginalia turns on personal identity (Coleridge’s annotations are brilliant, an anonymous college student’s banal) rather than on social categories such as class or gender. Jackson says little about either, but I’d argue that one of the most striking corroborations of her theory about the ambivalence provoked by marginalia lies in a sexual double standard: men’s annotations denote intellectual engagement, women’s a slovenly lack of self-restraint. Ever since The Rivals (1775), where Lady Slattern ‘cherishes her nails for the purpose of making marginal notes’ in circulating-library romances, it’s been a commonplace to assume that (as Thackeray put it) ‘much may be learned with regard to lovely woman by a look at the book she reads in . . . it is a wonder how fond ladies are of writing in books and signing their charming initials!’ Searching the circulating libraries for specimens of ‘silly novels by lady novelists’, the future George Eliot found volume after volume defaced by ‘delicate hands’, their purplest passages endorsed with ‘très vrai!!!’ While Jackson chooses Boswell’s Life of Johnson as her prime exhibit of a book that invites annotation, the late 19th-century writer Andrew Lang noticed that the pages of Boswell were uncut in one public library he visited while ‘the greasiest and most bescribbled tome in the collection’ was a Gothic romance by Ann Radcliffe. The two scenes Jackson herself cites from the Brontës both portray men judging women’s annotations. In Shirley, a tutor rebukes his pupil for drawing leaves and crosses in the margins of her books; and when the narrator of Wuthering Heights stumbles on some battered books inscribed with Catherine Earnshaw’s name, he reflects with ponderous irony that ‘Catherine’s library was select, and its state of dilapidation proved it to have been well used, though not altogether for its legitimate purpose.’

Because it draws evidence from individual copies of books (a staggering 386 in the case of the Life of Johnson) rather than the printed text that different copies of the same edition share, Marginalia forms an important contribution to the burgeoning discipline of book history – the joint attempt of historians, literary critics and bibliographers to redirect attention from the sequence of words that make up a text to the material object (whether page or scroll or screen) that embodies it. Book history was once thought dowdy, a refuge from grand theory for Gradgrindian librarians and editors, but a popular market is beginning to develop for books such as Kevin Jackson’s Invisible Forms (an archly self-referential series of essays on book titles, dedications, epigraphs, footnotes and marginalia) and Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold (the world’s first bestseller about microfilm). Marginalia itself reads like two separate books: one, a rigorous scholarly polemic about the sociable, and socially constructed, nature of even the most apparently private expression; the other, an erudite but genial compendium of anecdotal curiosities. Marginalia affords voyeuristic pleasures, allowing us to glimpse a famous writer’s unguarded reactions or look over the shoulders of unnamed and otherwise unknown readers. Yet its theoretical argument moves in the opposite direction, countering earlier critics’ comfortable assumptions that marginalia are ‘spontaneous, impulsive, uninhibited; that they offer direct access to the reader’s mind; that they are private and therefore trustworthy’, and demonstrating rather that marginalia form a system with its own rules, its own etiquette, its own audience. When Southey preserved Coleridge’s pencil markings for posterity (in the event, for the separate volume that they occupy in the Bollingen edition of his works), he lent weight to Jackson’s argument that marginalia do not constitute spontaneous effusions of the self so much as an opportunity for highly-crafted self-fashioning. Coleridge’s use of pencil denoted consideration, the choice of old folios to annotate guaranteed learning, the bulk of his marginalia proved industry. (Southey was returning good for evil: the margins of his poem Joan of Arc provided a testing ground for Coleridge’s shorthand system in which ‘S.E.’ stood for ‘Southey’s English, i.e. no English at all’, ‘I.M.’ meant ‘incongruous metaphor’ and ‘L.M.’ ‘ludicrous metaphor’.)

Where to draw the line? Marginalia discusses not just penned and pencilled words and lines, but any object that can be taped or glued or stapled into a book: pressed flowers, autographs, visiting cards, locks of hair. (Jackson’s taste for idiosyncrasy may explain why mass-produced sticky notes have no place in this study.) In contrast, filling in a crossword puzzle would probably not count as marginalising; nor, as Jackson points out, would colouring in black and white illustrations. Except in a few special cases (think of the flyleaves of family Bibles), the act must be uncalled for, transgressive, gratuit. (Jackson’s generous enthusiasm for textual trespass fits oddly with her more law-abiding plea for would-be annotators to make their marginalia ‘legible’, ‘honest’, ‘competent’ and ‘fair’ – as well as, less obviously, to sign their notes and to annotate the work of authors with whom they have something in common.)

Readers’ right to roam falls into abeyance if not constantly reasserted: like spraypaint on an underpass, marginalia proclaim that COLERIDGE WAS HERE. One of Jackson’s most poignant finds is a book inscribed with the name of its first owner, Hannah Andrews, and then apparently used for penmanship practice by a later reader, who copied out Hannah’s name several times before signing her own, adding underneath: ‘I am much improved in my writing since I wrote that ugly Hannah Andrews.’ If marginalia mark territory, notes in Volume X are a flag planted on Everest. Which isn’t to say that the ascent can never be faked; even those of us who can’t afford Flann O’Brien’s professional service can still slip a bus ticket between unread pages.