Marginalia

‘I am reading a book on Kafka. It is a library book, and someone has marked a passage in the margin with a long, wavering line. I pay the passage special attention without finding it particularly rewarding. As I turn the page the line moves. It is along dark hair.’

Alan Bennett diary entry.

Bringing to mind a piece by Nina Chua and Pavel Büchler – ‘Psychology of Forms’, with strands of hair printed on pages of a book, from 2017.

“The other day I had a word to say about the necessity for the professional book-handler, a person who will maul the books of the illiterate, but wealthy, upstarts so that the books will look read and re read by their owners.

Premier handling- each volume to be thoroughly handled, eight leaves in each to be dog eared, a suitable passage in not less than twenty-five volumes to be underlined in red pencil, and a leaflet in French on the works of Victor Hugo to be inserted as a forgotten book-mark in each.”

Flann O’Brien Buchhandlung ‘The best of Myles’

“I write in the margins.” Found in the top right-hand margin from the opening essay ‘The Page’, a short rumination on the conventions of the printed page, in George Perec’s ‘Species of Spaces and Other Pieces’.

Annotation was taught as a routine learning tool to develop a discourse between reader and text. Marking down, copying, and written observations were all traditional devices for remembering but why in the margins.

One argument for this is that readers know exactly where to find their notes since they are permanently attached to the text the reader has a better chance of understanding the intention behind the notes.

Moreover, because of the immediacy of note taking in the margin it allows for a continuous engagement with the text, a quick thought or idea gets noted down where it occurs.

Barthes notes in his essay ‘sur la lecture’ that reading is subject to the structure imposed by the text, it needs and respects it, but it also perverts it. This is also the case with marginalia.

Although the original text is not the same as first intended, causing problems for future readers, note takers tend to imitate the style of the writer they are commenting on.

The margin is like a space left for the reader, a site for reaction or dialogue, the annotator breaks with their anonymity marking down reactions, raising questions and listing observations. Derrida talks of the marginal space as a metaphor for challenges to otherwise closed systems.

‘In a polemical context if I want to be sure that my reply or attack will be read and not passed by, indeed read before the main text, I put it in the footnote’1

The margin functions as a boarder inside which the text appears and in this sense, it has a frame, a limit, but the margin can also operate as a space for additions, becoming a place for marginalia.

The link between the text and its margins is determined by the page. The importance of the physical ground of the text, bringing attention to the edge, emphasising the page as an object in space, one of which aspires to blackness or clearing.


1. Jacques Derrida, “This is Not an Oral Footnote” in Annotation and Its Texts, ed. Stephen A. Barney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 194.

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