December 15, 2003
by Joseph Epstein
I got used to these previous readers, most of whom seemed to me percipient in their choices of passages to underscore, but then, in Lewis’s chapter “Friendship,” I encountered someone—a woman, I suspect—who went bonkers. Using her ballpoint pen like a dagger, she carved imprecations into the book’s margins. In the few pages in which Lewis writes of the complexities of friendship between men and women, she wrote, all in capital letters, with no extra charge for the exclamation marks, “MALE CHAUVINIST!!!” On the facing page she noted “What is this bull sh—?!” And atop the following page, simply, “bull s—!” She was not very happy, either, with Lewis’s connection between friendship and religion, making a looping mark around the eight or nine sentences he devotes to the connection and, going off the rails completely now, providing the not quite intelligible response, “bull suck.”
It occurred to me to correct her vituperations, for the taurine droppings she refers to are spelled as one word, not two. Someone else, a cooler head with an educational impulse and working in faint pencil markings, also tried to straighten her out. “He’s describing what happens—not what should be,” this sensible fellow advised, and a bit later he patiently instructed, “Reread all of it!” But it’s too late; she’s a goner—clearly beyond all hope of education or exhortation.
The temptation to write in the margins of books is not difficult to understand. It might even be construed as a compliment to the author, suggesting that what he wrote is so provocative as to require a direct response. In this wise, marginalia could be described as the print equivalent of what in the computer age goes by the name of “interactive.”
Literature’s most famous marginal commentator was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge was a compulsive scribbler in the margins of books, but then he was also a compulsive talker, victim of various overmastering impulses, and the king of intellectual spillage, with endless projects abandoned, work left half-finished, genius unfulfilled. He wrote not only in books he owned but also those he borrowed from friends. De Quincey remarked that “Coleridge often spoiled a book but in the course of doing so, he enriched that book with so many and so valuable notes, tossing about him, with such lavish profusion, from such a cornucopia of discursive reading, and such a fusing intellect, commentaries so many-angled and so many-colored that I have envied many a man whose luck has placed him in the way of such injuries.”
Sometimes Coleridge’s marginalia were small explosions of contempt: “A very vile Poem, Mister J. Godwin, take a Brother Bard’s word for it!” But more often he would inscribe little essaylets in the margins. He did this in sufficient number—8,000 or so such notes have thus far been found in more than 450 books—as to make his marginalia part of his “Collected Works.” His daughter, reading some of these notes in her father’s books after his death, said that nothing brought him back, nothing so much sounded like his talk, as these particular scribblings.
I was recently told by someone who acquired one of my own early books in a used-book shop that its previous owner had expressed strong disagreement with me and had no compunction about setting it out in strong language in my margins. To write, said Stendhal, is to risk being shot in public, but he never said anything about taking the shots in the margins of one’s own books. Still, I am honored to join C. S. Lewis in being among the “marginalized.”
Used-book shop owners usually erase all the underlining and sidelining in books. A bookseller I know once told me that the most amusing marginal note he ever erased was one that read, “C’mon, Ortega!” Why is this funny? I do not know, but I do know that you cannot say it aloud in other than a whining voice, and I recommend using it when next you stub your toe or spill hot soup on yourself. Doing so, I find, eases the pain.
Joseph Epstein is a lecturer at Northwestern University.
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