While this morning’s repeat exams were going on I was leafing through an old second-hand text book, one of many I have acquired over the years looking for nice problems and worked examples. The good thing about old books is that solutions to the problems are usually not available on the internet, unlike modern ones. The book concerned this morning is a classic: Statics by Horace Lamb, which you can still get via Cambridge University Press. I have the first edition, published in 1912.

Looking through I was somewhat alarmed to see what had been pencilled in some of the margins:

Of course anyone who has been to India knows that the swastika isn’t necessarily a Nazi symbol: you find it all over the place in the Indian sub-continent, where it is used as a symbol for good luck. I remember being given a very nice conference bag in Pune many years ago with a swastika on it. I didn’t use it back home, of course.

The first owner of the copy of Statics that I have was acquired in 1913 by a J.H.C (or G) Lindesay of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. I know because he/she inscribed their name in the front. That doesn’t look to me like an Indian name, but I think it’s a fair bet that the book passed through many hands before reaching me and that one of the past owners was Indian. I haven’t tried any of the problems marked with the swastika, but perhaps they are difficult – hence the `good luck’ symbol? I notice though that the symbol at the bottom of the page has a chirality different from the others. Is this significant, I wonder?

All of which irrelevance 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 friends and 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:

One Response to “Marginalia”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    This can’t be answered as a Yes/No. If I gain possession of a first edition of Newton’s Principia, I consider I have a responsibility to leave it untouched. If I buy an advanced textbook of theoretical physics which can readily be purchased new or secondhand, I consider myself perfectly ethically free to write marginalia in it, and I will probably do so. If I could be bothered then I’d probably ‘make’ the corrections noted on the author’s or publisher’s website, moreover.

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