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:

11 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. Anton Garrett Says:

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

  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. Adrian Burd Says:

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

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    Fermat should have used post-its!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.)

  10. […] 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 […]

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