Why Marginalia?

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Wallace Marginalia
David Foster Wallace’s marginalia | Source: Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

Today, I’d like to pose a simple question, and give my opinion on something that I’ve struggled with as a reader for a while now: why write in the margins? Why do many readers mark up, star, or pose questions to authors while reading?

While reading today, I had a simple, yet [I think] profound insight into the purpose of marginalia: the reason we take notes while reading and mark up books is to have a psychic dialogue with the author. For active readers who engage with the author’s work, marginalia becomes more important than the reading itself. This is why it can be such a moving reading experience to read with pen in hand and notebook at the side. As readers, we prod the text to do more and be more, and when the text wows us, or disappoints, we want to respond to that.

I’ve written about this topic before, and on one level, understanding marginalia is the reason I started this blog.

When it comes to e-books and other digital technology, the reading experience needs to make our marginal conversations with the text easier and even more fluid. E-books used to provide a terrible reading experience because of this reason. They are starting to improve: I can type a note in the margin, highlight, and upload these to “the cloud,” but I can’t just grab a pen and write what I want, where I want it: over the text, in the “real” margin, or doodle/scribble random stuff.

I want to know what you, as a reader or as an author, think about this. Thoughts? Comment, like, and share!

About Kevin Eagan

Kevin Eagan (@criticalmargins) is a freelance editor, writer, and teacher who lives in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. In addition to writing about book technology and teaching college students how to write, Kevin works as an associate editor for punctum books. Previously, he was the books editor for Blogcritics. You can also follow him on Google+ or check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.

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  • Lisa Ciszczon Brennan

    Great discussion prompt. I am in pause mode regarding e-readers because I so love the physical experience of reading—the smell of the book, turning pages and noting the different paper weights and textures from book to book, and perhaps most importantly to me, the chance to mark it up as my own. Giving this up, sacrificing my bookshelves crammed with great reads, are just a few of the reasons for avoiding the e-readers that continue to lure me with their slick designs and alluring glow. I just can’t do it yet.

    Your comments regarding the ability to share thoughts and responses to the e-text are another pull for me; I so love book group each month and sharing with a class of readers how the text affects each of us. Sharing with a broader audience does have its appeal, but I also note in your blog and feel a stronger desire toward keeping my experience with the text as my experience. Reading, at least that initial read, is a personal experience for me, and I’m not sure I see any benefit to publicizing my reading experience (and intiial reactions) with absolutely anyone. Book groups, classes, and online discussion are a different opportunity, but my first crack at a text is mine—all mine. :=)

  • http://criticalmargins.wordpress.com Kevin

    Hi Lisa, thanks for the comment!

    I’m with you on keeping the first reading experience to myself. I like to really get to know the text before sharing with others. At the same time, reading becomes a social experience soon after that. I’m just not sure yet if these social sharing apps available on most reading platforms are necessary. It’s an idea I hope to explore in my next post!

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  • http://www.limerickslife.com limerickslife

    Interesting thought, I am an old fashioned paper book person, and everyone of my books has at least one post-it note inside marking a passage or quote of interest, I suppose it is a huge waste of paper but I could never bring myself to writing in the books themselves.

    • http://criticalmargins.wordpress.com Kevin Eagan

      That’s interesting — even though you’re not marking in the books, you’re still reading actively and marking parts for your memory. So it holds a similar purpose. Thanks for the comment!

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