Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Learning | Marginalia

Let's explore the subject of writing in books. Not writing books; taking a physical copy of a published work, and marking it in some way.  

Most of us have put our name on the flyleaf of a book we own; when I was a new reader and writer, I think I did that to every book I owned. I was proud of owning the books, but probably even more proud that I could express myself (in a very small way) in writing.

When I was older, I would underline (I'm not sure I was aware of highlighters yet, if they had been invented) important passages in books I was reading for English classes. (I'm not talking about school-owned books; I'm remembering the paperback copies of classic books, which I purchased.)

In tenth grade, my best friend, Roberta and I took this to a whole new level. That year, we had the same English teacher, Ms. Newman, but I was in the second period class, and Roberta was in the third period class. (Or maybe it was the other way around. We often mix ourselves up with each  other.)  

It was the year we read Julius Caesar.
Each of us had a paperback copy of the play. We were discussing it every day in class for what seemed like forever. Maybe it was a month? A few weeks? I don't know. I started out the usual way, underlining important phrases and noting important thoughts in the margins. 

Then, I think I started putting thought bubbles on the illustrations.  Two centurions were standing right next two each other, and I made one say,"Don't I know you from junior high school?"  

It was an inside joke.  I had recently been in a crowd at Mardi Gras, and I had heard one drag queen say that to another. They were both so heavily made up and gorgeously costumed, I wondered how the one guy had even recognized the other.  So the drawing of these centurions holding spears, wearing armor and helmets, struck me as a depiction of a similar situation.
Roman augur,
Image from page 246 of "The standard edition of the pictorial Shakspere" (1846)
From Internet Archive Book Images' photostream on
No known copyright restrictions.

Roberta and I started exchanging our copies of Julius Caesar, as one of us ascended the stairs, and the other descended.  

Those Julius Caesars filled up with drawings, thought bubbles, fake footnotes at other comments. One of the real footnotes contained the phrase,"Elizabethan audiences delighted in such puns."  So we looked for more puns in the play, and added more footnotes. 
Just imagine the thought bubbles that could be added to this picture, or maybe a funny caption.
Image from page 237 of "Julius Caesar and the foundation of the Roman imperial system" (1894),
from Internet Archive Book Images' photostream on No known copyright restrictions.

True to form, we keep forgetting where those Julius Caesars are, but we still occasionally get together and read them and laugh our heads off.

Today's word is marginalia. It simply means notes in the margin or margins of a book. That makes sense.  But I just had to look up the origin of the word margin, while I was at it. It comes from Latin, as many book terms do, and it originally meant the edge of a sea or lake. I like that. It makes me want to compare discovering marginalia in books to finding things washed up on the beach.

There's a new book out called Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries. 
Author Ander Monson has gathered examples of all sorts of books that have been marked up in one way or another. This book is loaded with Monson's essays on a wide range of subjects, including errata, permanence, time, computer punch cards, and a dead poet. It's one of those books that are wonderful to open at any random page, and find a gem.

Have fun with marginalia! But, whatever you do, don't write in a book that belongs to somebody else, without their permission. And NEVER write in a library book. Please.

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