Marginal Notes – Are You For Or Against?

At the weekend I was listening to a programme on Radio 3 part of which was about the rise of the foreign language phrasebook over the last three or four centuries. It was a fascinating discussion, not least because it reminded me of an old Victorian English-Hindi phrasebook I found in a bookship in Pune (India). The book was intended for the use of well-to-do British ladies  and the phrases presumably chosen to reflect their likely needs as they travelled about India. I opened the book at random and found a translation of “Doctor, please help me. I am suffering from severe constipation”. In my experience as a Westerner travelling in India, constipation was the least of my worries…

Anyway, the real point of posting about this is that some of the old phrasebooks which were used to illustrate the programme had been heavily annotated by their owners. That reminded me of an discussion I’ve had with a number of people about whether they like to scribble in the margins of their books, or whether they believe this practice to be a form of sacrilege.

I’ll put my cards on the table  straightaway. I like to annotate my books – especially the technical ones – and some of them have extensive commentaries written in them. I also like to mark up poems that I read; that helps me greatly to understand the structure. I don’t have a problem with scribbling in margins because I think that’s what margins are for.Why else would they be there?

This is a famous example – a page from Newton’s Principia, annotated by Leibniz:


Some of my fellow academics, however, regard such actions as scandalous and seem to think books should be venerated in their pristine state.  Others probably find little use for printed books given the plethora of digitial resources now available online or via Kindles etc so this is not an issue..

I’m interested to see what the divergence of opinions is in with regard to the practice of writing in books, so here’s a poll for you to express your opinion:

16 Responses to “Marginal Notes – Are You For Or Against?”

  1. If it weren’t for marginal notes we wouldn’t have the Talmud, moreover a lot of mathematicians’ lives would have been that much less challenging.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    I own the book and I am perfectly entitled to do what I like with it, whether that be leaving it alone; changing only errata; making copious marginal notes; or, if I dislike it, using it as toilet paper. If it were the only copy in existence then there is an argument that I have a duty to hold it in trust for future generations – I recall the outcry over the destruction of a painting of Winston Churchill by his wife with which the couple had been presented but disliked – but that has not been the case with books for some 560 years, since Gutenberg.

  3. I don’t do this, probably because I used to read mostly library books. I like them pristine. Having now bought a tolino eBook reader I have the best of both worlds, at least for books I would buy as being suitable eBooks. I’m writing this on said device while waiting for a Martin Barre concert to start, having just finished a chapter of Last and First Men

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Stapledon was brilliant. But NB you an’t correct minor errors in mathematical formulae on Kindle-type devices.

      • I know just enough about Kindle that I knew I didn’t want to buy one, but rather another eBook reader. In my case, tolino seemed to be the best choice: I own what I buy, like with paper books; there is no danger of them being changed, much less deleted, after I have downloaded them; I dislike proprietary standards for file exchange (though proprietary software for producing or processing such files is fine) and tolino supports ePub (that’s the main thing), PDF and .TXT files.

        I can mark, translate (from several languages to several otherS), or look up in a dictionary (in several languages) any word in the text. I can mark any portion of the text and enter a note on it. No, I can’t correct it as such, but I can enter a note about what is wrong. All such notes, apart from being available as “links” in the text, are appended to a text file. I can access this via USB, e.g. copy it to some other computer, copy a modified version back, etc.

        There are three ways to get files onto it. One is via USB, i.e. copy a file from somewhere else onto the device. The second is to download something directly to the tolino via the built-in web browser (which is pretty basic but as you can see good enough to comment here!) The third is to buy a book in the online bookstore of the (brick-and-mortar) bookstores in the consortium (several otherwise competing booksellers in several countries with a large selection of books in several languages); in this case, a copy ends up in my “cloud” account (which I get for life with purchase of the tolino). When I switch on the tolino, it lets me know if there is anything in the cloud which is not on the device or vice versa; if there is, I can initiate a synchronization which will copy it from the place where it is to the place where it is not. I can also upload eBooks from any source to the cloud, so there is always a backup there if something happens to the physical device (which, as long as I stick to text-only books, has more than enough memory to store everything I could read in my life).

        PDF formatted for A4 is either too small to read or, if enlarged, one has to scroll around—possible, but not so convenient. However, most “real” books are available in ePub format. The tolino is ideal, though, for viewing the PDF file of an overhead presentation, such as practicing it before giving a talk.

        It’s not a replacement for every book. It is black-and-white, so anything with colour illustrations I would read elsewhere. I don’t yet own a tablet, but a tablet would be OK for colour illustrations and A4-formatted PDF files, at least if I don’t want to read it in bright light and/or when away from electricity for a long time. (The tolino uses e-ink so has the look and feel of paper; it also has a backlight for reading at night. Without the light, the battery will last for weeks.) It is really more convenient than a paper book, especially when on a crowded train, plane, etc., on the beach, and so on.

    • Adrian Burd Says:

      Martin (Lancelot) Barre eh? How was the concert (presumably sans Anderson)?

      • Yes, without Anderson (I’m seeing him a week from Sunday).

        I prefer Jethro Tull to a Martin Barre solo show. An Ian Anderson solo show is, not surprisingly, more Tull-like than a Martin Barre solo show. However, unlike many other rock singers of the same age, Ian’s voice has deteriorated, so even a proper Jethro Tull show is not as good as a 1970s Tull show.

        On the other hand, the opportunity to see Martin in a small club (I was, as usual, at the very front of the stage; it used to be a long wait, but now I can read stuff) is of course much more interesting than from far away in a larger venue (even if I am down front). I see many more things live than I would buy on CD, partially out of curiosity but also because there is more to see. (I play guitar a bit—not very well, but am interested in the technical stuff, so this provides an additional angle). Martin is certainly enjoying himself and is much more present than with Tull, certainly the front man although he doesn’t sing. All in all an enjoyable show and I recommend that you catch him when he plays somewhere near you.

        I almost always prefer the original Tull versions of the songs. Which Tull fan wouldn’t? It’s not just because I am more familiar with them, but rather it is the high quality which attracted me to Tull in the first place. On the other hand, I do enjoy some of Martin’s versions, especially his mandolinized version of “Hymn 43” and the heavy-metal version of “Fat Man”. (His mandolin on Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” is also a nice take on a familiar tune.) Also, Martin plays some things which Tull/Ian haven’t played in a long time.

        Martin has 4 “real” solo albums. (There was a limited release of his “Summer Band” before these, and a “best of” of the John Carter albums he is on.) I have all 4 of these except, for no particular reason, The Meeting. I prefer Stage Left to his first proper solo album. Best is probably Away with Words (it’s mostly instrumental) which features arrangements of Tull tunes, mixed in with some new stuff from Martin. It’s mostly acoustic. There is much acoustic Tull music, of course, but it is almost always Ian Anderson playing. Martin and Ian are both very good players, but their styles are quite distinct. However, the acoustic music here is mostly not acoustic Tull music, but rather acoustic arrangements of electric Tull music. Often hearing completely different arrangements of familiar tunes makes one appreciate how good the familiar original is. With that in mind, how about something by Iron Maiden arranged for classical guitar?!

        Something similar awaits me a week from today when I’ll see Tommy Emmanuel in Heidelberg. I was prompted to see him the first time by a poster advertizing a gig which quoted Clapton saying that he had never heard a better guitarist. Emmanuel really is amazing. I saw Al Di Meola last week (and Fish, and Michael Schenker, and The Musical Box somewhere else—yes, many concerts at the moment) and have seen many really good guitarists over the years (Schenker in his current sober incarnation is also amazingly good), but Emmanuel is certainly a cut above most or even all others.

        Other upcoming concerts: Kieran Goss, Uriah Heep, Anoushka Shankar, half a dozen Baroque concerts (mostly Bach), an unplugged concert by a Pink Floyd cover band, the Iron Maidens (amazingly good all-female Iron Maiden (un)cover band—you haven’t lived until you have seen them), another Iron Maiden cover band who do only unplugged shows (often in a much slower tempo than the original with a truly excellent singer, Damien Wilson—he doesn’t sound like Dickinson, but that’s not the point here), Cara (German-Scottish-Irish band playing mostly Irish folk), The Australian Pink Floyd Show (I saw them at a small club in Manchester before they became big), maybe the Spencer Davis Group (so that I can see the excellent Pete York on drums). Normally I see Wishbone Ash at the beginning of the year, but this year I’ll be at a cosmology conference in Oslo. Recent concerts: Focus, Caroline Widmann, Foreigner (unplugged), Blackmore’s Night, David Garrett, the Rolling Stones, a Rainbow cover band, the Pretty Things, Black Sabbath, the Scorpions (unplugged).

        “The meaning of life is that it ends.” —Franz Kafka

      • Sorry, I intended this link to an excellent video.

  4. Back in the day (as in: when I had time to read) I used to be a fairly serious consumer of second-hand books, which led me to the conclusion that people who write in the margins of books are mostly idiots. I wouldn’t mind finding wise and insightful annotations in margins, but sadly that’s not what actually happens. (If anyone can persuade Leibniz to come and scribble on my book collection, I may change my mind.)

  5. Books are tools, not ornaments : ) Having a dialogue with the author is a major part of responding to any academic work, and sometimes of developing your own standpoint in the field: (apols for plug but didn’t want to repeat myself).

  6. It is possible to annotate a book yet keep it in its pristine state. I have discovered a truly remarkable proof of this theorem which this comment box is too small to contain.

  7. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’ve read the book The Book Nobody Read.

    It’s by Owen Gingerich and relates his research into Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, in particular using marginalia in all surviving copies to understand how much and in what ways De Revolutionibus was used. The marginal notes have proved invaluable.

    It’s a good read. Gingerich’s book I mean, not Copernicus’s. I haven’t read that.

  8. I like marginal notes. I just don’t have much cause to make them in my books. (Of course, I wouldn’t make notes in a library book for anything less than extreme need.)

  9. […] of poetry in my pocket when I travel on the bus or train. Quite a few of these and other books have scribbles in the margins, another habit of […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: