Monday, February 21, 2011

Thinking Marginally

This piece in the NYTimes on the potential disappearance of margin notes and the people who morn their passing is fascinating.  Not so much because I like margin notes -- because I don't. 

I'm an insane stickler about people not putting marks or folding pages in my books for some weird reason I've never understood.  No idea where this compulsive "pristine condition of books" things comes from, but it's a pretty strong one for me.

So I don't lend books out very often because if they come back marked on, dented or stained?  I end up having to track down a new copy.  Go figure.

But this piece is fascinating to me because I'm mesmerized by the glimpses of the people who made prior notes:
Paul F. Gehl, a curator at the Newberry, blamed generations of librarians and teachers for “inflicting us with the idea” that writing in books makes them “spoiled or damaged.”

But marginalia never vanished. When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa in 1977, a copy of Shakespeare was circulated among the inmates. Mandela wrote his name next to the passage from “Julius Caesar” that reads, “Cowards die many times before their deaths.”
Apparently, Thomas Jefferson annotated his personal copy of the Federalist Papers to identify the author of each of the pieces in it. Long-time readers will know that those were originally published anonymously under pseudonyms, so how fascinating is it that Jefferson felt the need to annotate his volume as a sort of primer on who wrote what.

Was it so that he'd know even in his dotage who had written particular passages with which he had an affinity? With whom he vehemently disagreed? And how fun is that to think about in the abstract, the Founders as human beings instead of on their usual academic pedestals?

Intriguing stuff, and fun to think about on a dreary Monday here.

(Photo of some margin notes via Zadi Diaz.)

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