Have you ever read the poem, Marginalia, by Billy Collins from his collection, Picnic, Lighting? Marginalia are the little things you find written in the margins of books. Here's an excerpt from Collins's poem:
“Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page…
And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written ‘Man vs. Nature’
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward...”
I love the humor, and the way it describes the intimacy between book and reader, and the unexpected intimacy between readers separated through time and place, joined through the medium of a common book. Billy Collins is a former poet laureate and I’d absolutely suggest picking up his book to read the full poem and others.
I did my fair share of jotting “irony” in the margins of books for my high school and college English classes. My mother once read my eighth grade copy of To Kill a Mocking Bird and noted that several instances where I had written “irony” in the margins were in fact not ironic at all. I’d like to think I know better now, but who are we kidding.
I keep track of a lot of the interesting marginalia I’ve found in books. Used books and library books are obviously essential to this game. Here are a few things I have found:
o A short note, written in cursive pencil, at the end of my college library's copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s that read something to the effect of “I’ve known a Holly Golightly in my life. She was the most beautiful person and I loved her, but she could never love me. I’ll always remember her.” Can you imagine the sort of guy (or woman) that reads Breakfast at Tiffany’s and writes that note? I’m actually a little suspicious of the romantic type, and although this person probably wrote that note in good faith, I don’t have a lot of sympathy. No one has an obligation to return affection.
o In my used copy of Fahrenheit 451, someone had highlighted every instance of color in the text. Can’t you just imagine this student’s paper? Yellow = greed, red = anger, etc. It’s the kind of close reading that makes you weep for the future of literary criticism.
o A long unbroken vertical line, drawn in pen, that ran down a page long section of Amy Tan’s memoir, The Opposite of Fate, in which she discusses why she quit her doctoral program. I bought this book from a used bookstore, Nice Price Books, in Durham, NC, which is across the street from Duke University. I imagine that a grad student who was already contemplating dropping out of their program read this book and highlighted that section as particularly meaningful to them. It’s a great part of the book. I could see it giving someone the guts to quit a program or job that’s wasn't right for them.
o A Christmas card that fell out of the jacket of a library book. It was a photo card and on it was a picture of a family posing with one of their sons and his new bride. The family was white. The bride had dark hair and skin and was wearing an elaborate pink and white sari. The inside of the card had a quote from the bible and a handwritten note. I won’t write the fully text of the card, but I was struck by this line:
“The experience of welcoming a Muslim daughter-in-law into the family has been an opportunity to expand my consciousness and open my heart.”
I feel that could be read several ways.
o A Patrick O’Brien book from the library covered in soup stains. Not a piece of marginalia exactly, but it connected me to this anonymous reader, wherever they are now, because I also love to eat soup while I read and it is impossible to do it without splashing the pages. See my poor copy of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader below. I suspect it’s Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup. I know better now.
Anyway, I love marginalia.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever found written or sitting in a book?
Writer, editor, scientist.