The merits of marginalia is a point of contention for many readers. Some people can’t read without a pen in one hand and a highlighter in the other, while others view the marking of books as nothing short of sacrilege.
The latter camp might argue that there are plenty of alternatives to writing directly in the margins: for example, you can keep your notes in a notebook or a commonplace book. But it just doesn’t feel the same: writing in a notebook feels about as awkward as holding a conversation with someone who’s standing too far away. There’s something direct and…well, personal about writing in the margins of a book.
So, in defense of all you serial scribblers out there (sorry, sticklers), here are five reasons why you should proudly make your mark in the margins of your books:
1. Some Of Your Favorite Writers Were Scribblers
If the masters were doing it, it can’t be bad, right? Writers such as Sylvia Plath, Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac, John Updike, William Blake, and Edgar Allen Poe all wrote their own annotations in the margins of books. David Foster Wallace wasn’t shy about his marginalia; he took notes in bright red ink, some of them taking up every spare inch of white space he could find. Mark Twain took some particularly scathing (and quite funny) jabs at writers like John Dryden and Herman Melville in the margins of his books. It wasn’t strictly writers but thinkers as well: Sir Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Darwin were all notable scribblers.
2. It Gives You A Better Understanding Of What You’re Reading
Many people become familiar with the concept of marginalia in college; adding annotations to massive textbooks and dense philosophical novels can be a lifesaver for future essays and exams. When reading for pleasure, annotations aren’t strictly needed as much as they are useful. If you come across a word you don’t understand, you can write the definition in the margins so you’ll remember what it means when you come back to it. Marginalia can also help you keep track of plot details, characters, themes, and ideas. Writing in the margins helps you slow down and engage with the text you’re reading. It also means you won’t have to go through the hassle of flipping through a notebook to remember what you’ve said about a particular passage.
3. It Helps You Keep Track Of Your Thoughts
The notes written in margins don’t necessarily have to be “useful:” they can also be personal. If a book evokes a certain feeling that you want to preserve, or triggers a particular memory, or gives you an idea about the meaning of life, etc., jotting it down in the margins will prevent your precious thought from fading and becoming lost forever.
And someday, even if you look back and decide that your old thoughts were wrong or embarrassing, you can see how you’ve grown as a person. You now have a window into who you were, which you can compare to who you are now, and perhaps even get a glimpse of who you might be in the future. Take a pen of a different color and write some more notes in the margin so that someday you can compare them again.
4. It Adds A Personal Touch
There’s a particular joy in finding a book that has been marked with annotations at a used bookstore or second-hand store. It’s a reminder that books are a part of a much larger world filled with people with thoughts and experiences much different from your own. There’s a voyeuristic pleasure in reading someone else’s marginalia, perhaps because they are so personal in nature. And someday, when your favorite book finds its way into the hands of your loved ones, they’ll surely find it more precious with your handwritten notes in the margins.
5. It’s Fun!
There’s a sort of rebel pleasure in writing in the margins of books. It’s a bit like graffiti; putting your mark where it doesn’t belong and using an object for something other than its intended purpose, except unlike graffiti, it’s legal (as long as you’re not scribbling in any library books, that is). A book that might otherwise be a slog can be much more enjoyable when you engage it with a pen in hand. And let’s be honest here: you can make a terrible book much better by adding your own mocking quips to the margins. It can be a lot more fun for anyone you loan the book out to afterward as well.
What do you scribble in the margins of your books?
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