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The Merits of Marginalia

Why you should annotate your books



My favourite book is a beat-up and weathered Penguin Classics paperback. Its spine is lined and cracked, it is tarnished by multitudes of dog-eared pages, and the margins of each page are crammed with inky handwriting. There was a time, however, when nothing in the world seemed as offensive as a creased page, as a margin filled with HB pencil markings (God forbid ink!). I believed books were meant to be bought and kept pristine forever, if possible. 


What changed, then? It was going through my mother’s book collection, the earliest dating back to the late 70s. The pages have turned to the utmost shades of yellow, crumpled with time, and the bindings are loose and unwieldy. The thick ink of runny fountain pens fills any spaces not taken up by print, bleeding through the pages. But these annotated books, even if their commentaries seem frankly arbitrary, contain within them a multitude of stories. An inscription on her copy of What Katy Did told me it was my mother’s 15th birthday present; entire passages of Jane Eyre circled and underlined showed me it was her favourite book long before it was mine. 


Though annotations are literally marginal to an author’s work, they help us tangibly deconstruct and better understand the ingenuity at play within literature. Reading is both pleasure and work, the latter of which challenges us and makes us grow. To grapple with a phrase or idea solely in one’s mind is not always enough; in writing things down on the page where our thoughts sit beside those of great writers, we are closer linked to those minds and their ideas.


Over the summer, before starting my first year at St Andrews, I read John Keats’ poem ‘Bright Star.’ Flicking back through those pages where I first read Keats, I am struck by my then-interpretations of his writing and how they have changed. Having noted the first line, “Bright Star! would I were steadfast as thou art,” my comments tell me that I thought Keats to be reminiscing on some lofty ideal of beauty and stability represented in stars, unattainable in human life. But only now do I understand that though the “bright star” is permanent, steadfast in the sky, it is equally detached, existing separate from the passions of human love. It took me time to see how Keats subverts the expectation of stars being ideals of steadfastness and fortitude, insisting instead that it is in the connections we have with each other where true constancy is found. 


Funnily enough, the poem ‘Bright Star’ itself is a product of marginalia. It was written in a volume of The Poetic Works of William Shakespeare, on the page opposite the poem ‘A Lover’s Complaint,’ about a young woman forlorn over a cruel lover who abandoned her, ending the poem by declaring that she is bound to fall for his deception and charm once more. Keats, on the page opposite this poem, took this heartbreak, and subverted it into a celebration of passion and its durability, a declaration of love for his own ‘bright star’ Fanny Brawne. 


Keats wrote as though he disagreed with Shakespeare’s portrayal of tragedy and love, shaping the steadfastness and splendour of his own poem; through marginalia, he was writing alongside, or against, the most significant writer of the Western canon, which he would eventually join. In rereading my own (inaccurate) annotations of ‘Bright Star,’ I understood my growth as a reader; and so in an annotated book there exists more than one story: there is that of the writer’s, and that of our own relationship to the written word. 


So Shakespeare, Keats, and countless other writers are telling us that stories do not end where they claim to. There is always something we can add, some chance to work off the ingenuity of those great minds which we read. There is no need to write the next great sonnet beside a page of Shakespearean poetry; indeed, there is no need to write anything particularly profound at all. It is in the plain process of joining these writers and conversing with them on the page that helps us grow as readers: we learn from their stories and from those of our own.


Photo by Arnaz Mallick

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