mar·gi·na·li·a: pl.n. Notes, scribbles and comments made by readers in the margin of a book.
I can't tell when I first put pen to page, can't pin down the initial moment I first committed to the act. But it led to a tendency, which became habit, which resulted in a full-on dependency.
Soon my notes became more extensive — underlining, asterisking, annotating, brackets, parentheses, circles, boxes. I made footnotes. I observed broader themes connecting passages. I measured cadences with arrows. I scrawled enthusiastic "yes!"'s and cavalier "ha"'s in the miles of blank page. My favorite books were thick with ink running along, below, into the text.
I as much as decimated the pages of my books, commandeering the white perimeter with a gust of scribbles in my feverish excitement. Books have become my confessionals, my diaries, my critical notebooks. They've become a chronicle of my progression, charting my moment-by-moment responses, encapsulating a mindset I held at a moment in time. Books have become a place to record those intimate, honest, knee-jerk reactions that a thousand scholarly papers can hardly get at.
I rarely pick up a book or a newspaper or a magazine without hovering over the text with a ball point pen in hand, poised to scribble my thoughts as they come.
Marginalia have always been at the center of serious reading," wrote Mark O'Connell in The New Yorker. "It's admirable pithiness aside, the quip's popularity probably has a lot to do with its egalitarian spirit: you don't need to be able to give a detailed account of Heidegger's ontology or have published a monograph on Proust to gain access to the club; you just have to keep a nicely sharpened HB in your hand as you read."
While accessible to all, O'Connell wrote, marginalia have a place, too, at the margins of literary history. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mark Twain and Voltaire were prolific marginalians, as were William Blake and Charles Darwin. The act of writing in the margins was more common in the 1800s, according to New York Times' Kirk Johnson. It wasn't until the 20th century that it became regarded as a graffiti of sorts.
But the tradition continued, Johnson wrote. "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.'"
But then there are the lesser known commentators. Pressed between the covers of a dusty book, the brash markings find their way to bookstores, libraries, thrift shops, awaiting the chance discovery of another: