Marginalia is one of my favorite literary topics – and although when I buy a second-hand book, I make sure that nobody has marked it up beforehand (too distracting) – I do find studies of marginalia to be extremely interesting: the things that famous people underlined, or marked, or things written in the margins of books … Thornton Wilder’s marked-up copy of Finnegans Wake is a piece of art, as far as I’m concerned!!
I write in my books. It’s kind of a compulsive habit, I usually read with a pen in my hand. I feel weird without it. It’s part of my obsession with holding onto things, a barrier against the oblivion of forgetting. “I must remember this passage … so I can find it again if I need it”. Some books in my collection are more marked up than others. My Sylvia Plath Collected Poems is so marked up that I bought a clean copy – just to go alongside the marked-up one. I like to READ the clean copy, but my web of connections in the margins is also interesting to look at, and helpful when I want to write about Plath. References in her journal, references in Hughes’ poems that dovetail with one of Plath’s, early drafts of the poems, or alternate titles …the margins are full of small notes to myself. (Example: In Sylvia Plath’s Oct. 1962 poem “The Tour” the following line occurs: “The blue’s a jewel. / It boils for forty hours a stretch.” Beside that line, I wrote the following note, referencing one of Ted Hughes’ poems from Birthday Letters: “Ted Hughes. Red. ‘But the jewel you lost was blue.’ ” Okay, so that’s an example of how these poems appear to speak to one another and I wanted to make sure I captured that connection so I could come back to it later, if I wanted to. I realize how OCD this makes me sound. I can own that.)
A small book has come out about Hitler’s library (Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life), and analyzing his marginalia (which is, necessarily, a speculative enterprise – because who can know what is in someone’s heart … However, I mentioned before – in one of my soulmate essays – that my secondhand copy of Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull was owned by someone else and every line about ‘soulmate’ was underlined by this gentle soul – it’s all in the same pen, and the same pen that wrote the inscription in the front. So obviously it wasn’t the bits about flight or birds that touched this reader, but the possibility of finding a mate. This is my guess, anyway. ) The marginalia can speak. That’s why I love it as a topic.
Very interesting what it could, potentially, reveal.