Defined, simply, marginalia is the notes that exist within the margin. They happen in drafts that I’m working on, or when someone hands me a stack of papers crudely stapled together to read (I think they call it a “manuscript”). Then I take the time to scrawl my handwriting as tight as possible and mark up the document. It helps when they give me a double-space or an extra inch on the margin. Other times, I just have a mess of red ink.

David Foster Wallace’s Marginalia of Don De Lillo’s “Players” – hosted by the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin.

My wife and I share a lot of the same books – it’s what keeps the marriage together (the idea that we might have to split these things up some day? No thanks) so I’m always wary of marking up the pages of a shared book. Even more so if she hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet. There are times when I can’t even imagine how deep or slow one has to go about their reading to stop and make comments on the page. David Foster Wallace was famous for this. His habit and style may have launched a whole new world of modern marginalia that gives aspiring writers a step inside his process and the way he looks at fiction. In the same breath, Mark O’Connell gets a whim of anxiety and fears whenever someone picks something off of his shelf that’s he’s written in. How dangerous!

This enthusiasm for an underpraised form of writing is infectious, and he makes a compelling case for marginalia-sharing as a means of giving readers’ observations more currency in the literary exchange. But I think he underestimates the extent to which most readers value annotations precisely because they are a private exchange between themselves and whatever book they happen to be talking back to.

When it comes to writing in books, author/artist Austin Kleon says:

I believe that the first step towards becoming a writer is becoming a reader, but the next step is becoming a reader with a pencil

When it comes to finished, published books some folks have a hard time adding anything else to the page. Some have no problems with it at all. Unless it comes to library books – which are sacred behind belief. And yet, some of the most intimate correspondence I have ever had was stumbled upon in the pages of a library book. I used to live a few blocks from the library and visited all the time. My offices used to face the Denver Library in Civic Center, its bounty of information and its well of problems. I haven’t been back in a good while.

Within the margins of one book, messages were traded back and forth – masculine script on the left, feminine on the right, each in their fading graphite. Whoever they were, whatever love they wanted to keep secret, this is the way they exchanged it. In an age where we stare at the typing bubbles in our texting apps, I can only imagine the longing one feels when they get their mail through the holds at the library.

Another book had a postcard in it, used as a bookmark, left about 1/3rd of the way through the story. The postcard was from a historic town out east – a quick note to say I never stopped thinking of you. Love, Mike. Addressed to somewhere a few blocks from where I was living at the time, but postmarked. I always thought of taking the walk to re-hand deliver it, or slide it under a door, or to see what about this person was able to drive love and admiration from Mike.

Usually, though, abandoned bookmarks are receipts for places I’d never go to, shopping lists for recipes I’ll never make.


David Pennington
David Pennington

Writing would be great if it weren't the only thing I knew how to do. I publish as much as I can, you'll just have to wait for the rest.  

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