Marginalia: Why You Should Write in the Margins of Your Books

Updated: Feb 23

"In the simple act of annotation, the book is given another narrative and its second life, independent of the original author, begins."

Pictured: My heavily annotated copy of Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station

Originally coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, marginalia describes the markings, notes, illustrations, or doodles made by readers in the margins and white spaces of a book. It is, to most people, a textual sacrilege, a blasphemy against the written word; I feel, however, that the people who think as such are missing out.

I've been an avid marginalia fan since my A-Level days, religiously writing my thoughts and feelings in the margins of every book I read. Admittedly, I was reluctant to take part at first. Having lived in libraries growing up, it had been drilled into me that any book taken out had to be put back exactly as it was found. Scribbling in the margins – especially *gasp* in pen – meant there was no going back.

I'm not saying that you should start defacing library property, you scallywags. Instead, I'm encouraging you to experiment with scribbling your thoughts in the margins of your own books. Ever suspected a smoking gun in the storyline, a facet that you think may be relevant in the latter pages of the book? Or has there been a sentence that strikes a chord with you? Start with a highlighter, or even underline the phrase in pencil. You'll thank me when you start connecting the dots.

At first I began in pencil. If I changed my mind, I could always erase the notes, the spectre of my writing only hinted at by a smattering of indents scattered sporadically throughout the book. However, it wasn't until I put pen to paper that I was able to really embrace defacing my literature.

In the permanence of my pen on the paper, I found there was a strange liberty, that somehow the history of that one book had been altered, and that I had joined a secret conversation with strangers that would last beyond my lifetime.

This may sound grandiose, but the possibility of a transcendent conversation first became apparent to me after my first visit to the York Minster library. In the first book I pulled from the dusty shelves lined with archaic tomes, I found a long line of commentary inked in the margins, the authors of the anonymous notes bickering back and forth over why the parent comment was either valid or invalid. This fascinated me more than the contents of the book itself.

Who were these people? Why were they so fervent in their arguments? What compelled them to argue back with these strangers? Within the pages of one story, another had begun to unfold.

When I moved house earlier this year, the books I had written in years before found new homes in charity shops, ready to begin their next life on a stranger's shelf. I sometimes wonder if one day someone will pick up one of these annotated books and continue the discussion in their own line of commentary. In the simple act of annotation, the book is given another narrative and its second life, independent of the original author, begins.

In my experience, the more loved a book is, the more dog-eared it will be. My favourite book – Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – is in pieces. It’s missing the front cover, every page has been scrawled over and half of the book is wrinkled from where I’ve previously dropped it in the bath. However, that book has a story of its own, evidenced in the writing in the margins that has mapped my thought process from over the years.

Pictured: My battered and broken, yet much loved copy of Wuthering Heights

After my graduation in 2019 I continued this practice, finding benefit in my scrawling outside of the academic sphere. Marginalia provided an opportunity to flex the literary muscles that I had spent the last three years of my life honing, enabling me to wholly unpack the text, understanding its richness to the fullest extent.

Writing is a craft. Every word is carefully selected, every sentence put together for a delivery that lingers with the reader long after the book has been put down. Marginalia is my way of being able to absorb this delivery, to pause and unpick every word, sentence and paragraph, reconstructing them for my own understanding – perhaps even changing my mind after re-reading the book and disagreeing with my former thought process.

Marginalia has been in practice since the medieval period, revealing more about the text’s history than the contents itself. It gives a book personality, revealing a lineage of readers that otherwise would have been forgotten. I’m proud to be a part of that lineage – and with Samuel Taylor Coleridge being a self-confessed marginalia fan, I know I am in good company.

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