This morning I got an email from a man I've never met asking for my thoughts about marginalia—the scribblings of readers in the margins of books they are reading. He mentioned that he's working on an article about the significance of these notations and wanted to know if I had anything interesting to offer.
I could have mentioned how it was drilled into me at an early age, by various authority figures from my stern father to nuns so stern they made him look like a muppet, that one must never, ever write in a book. To do so disrespects the book, the art, the author.
This could explain why I broke in a blaze of marginalia in college, when I was away from all that sternness.
Instead of getting into all that, I wrote the following:
I'm a lifelong reader, a bibliophile, and more recently in my life, an author. It would come as no surprise that I consider the space wherein a reader engages with a text as a kind of sacred space. I don't necessarily see it as metaphysical but rather intensely physical. The text is an object that represents the emotional/intellectual life of its maker; it is held in the hands, perceived by the eyes, ruminated upon in the brain: physical. Creativity is spirit in my cosmology. Therefore, reading a text takes us physically as close as we can get to another's spirit.
We just as surely enter that sacred space when we see a sculpture or painting, or hear a musical composition, but the difference here is that one can scribble marginalia in a book, thereby interacting with the text, adding something to the sacred space. Sure, it could be a bogus comment—stupid or inane or unconnected. But in the best cases, it forms a new layer for the later reader to sift through. When I encounter such marginalia, I'm seeing the experience of a reader engaging with a text. It can be fascinating. In the best cases, it informs my own engagement with the text, as I can see how similarly, or differently, another reader understood and was stimulated by the text.
In closing, I'll mention that when I was 19 years old (almost 30 years ago), I read Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. I was greatly moved by the book, and while it is clearly a feminist treatise and I was a young male with no clear understanding of the lives of adult women, I strongly related to her arguments. The book was hugely influential and changed the way I thought at the time. I have always remembered it as a touchstone.
Recently, I found my old copy of the book. It is heavy with marginalia scribbled by an earlier version of myself. I was surprised to find my memory of my reactions has been . . . modified over time. In fact, I took great exception to some of Woolf's arguments, while in many other places, I was in such complete agreement I simply wrote YES! In one case I wrote it so vehemently that my pencil tore the page—which goes beyond mere langauge toward the realm of body language. Talk about a physical connection with a book.
The overall effect of this marginalia is that I see my own notes as coming from a strange, alien version of myself, one I recognize but no longer inhabit. I can actually see my own intellectual self getting a major jolt of electricity, and thereby being sent off on a path of inquiry that I continue to this day. Woolf's book changed me. I have taught its lessons to my students for a quarter century, as I will do again this coming semester.