Voices from the margins…

…was a title we were given in second year for seminar papers. I did mine on writers from marginalised communities writing genre. It was fun, but I wish now that I’d done something related to the physical margins of the book.

Anyway, since I’m a) too busy to write and b) 23 as of a couple of days ago and really should do responsible grown up things now like read my texts, here’s last week’s Express article for you instead.

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Aristotle is said to have given his student Alexander the Great a personally annotated copy of Homer’s
Iliad. Alexander slept with it under his pillow.
The margins of my copy of C.S Lewis’s Till We Have Faces – found secondhand at a book fair many years ago – are filled with bad drawings and notes in purple pencil. The previous owner has also underlined all the paragraphs that she (or he) most enjoyed in the same bright purple. It’s interesting, but it’s sometimes hard to read and looks horrible.
But there’s something fascinating about the traces left by other people who have held a book before you. Library books, for example. I generally hate it when people write in library books. Often these acts of vandalism are in the form of word definitions – people take out books, discover that they do not know the meanings of half the words (why not take out books whose words you do understand?), underline them and then painstakingly look them up in the dictionary and write the definitions in the book. Perhaps they think they’re doing the rest of us a favour. They’re not. Library books do not belong to you, you’re (hopefully) going to return them, and there’s no need to spoil the reading experience of future library users.
Then again, not all writing in library books is bad. I once took a very old book out of a library to find that comments (sensible ones too) had been made in the margins by someone who had read it perhaps thirty years ago. And someone had replied, also in the margins, and someone else had chimed in below. And so, wonderfully, there was a conversation going on across generations at the edges of those pages. The notes in the margins brought up points I hadn’t considered, they enhanced my reading, and at some point they crossed over into art.
Notes and marks left in secondhand books are different and far more personal. From previous owners of books I own, I have received artwork, pressed flowers, earwax, class notes, declarations of love, and bills for vegetables. I know that the previous owner of my Lewis book was a terrible artist, but I also know that she could recognize a good sentence when she saw one, and I like her for it. Then there are the little notes from book givers to book receivers. Many of my friends are upset by people giving them books without writing something on the first page to provide some sort of context for when and how this book entered their lives. When I read these notes in second hand shops I can see why. I even own a book that seems to have been personally gifted by the author to a friend of his (who hopefully waited for a decent interval before giving it away).
I’m tempted sometimes to make up fascinating inscriptions of my own and write them in my own unmarked books. Perhaps in the future some young bibliophile will think I led a far more interesting life than I actually do.

8 Comments to “Voices from the margins…”

  1. In a Cardiff bookstore last year, I found a book that had detailed notes on different ways of committing suicide, in remarkably neat handwriting along the margins of a hardcover edition Sign of Four from the 1940s.

    Fascinating and spooky.

  2. “… (why not take out books whose words you do understand?) …”

    I disagree. Sure, the vandalism is a bad thing, but what’s the point of always reading books where you understand all the words?

    I have a copy of The Exorcist where, in purple ink, the reader begs future readers to call him if they understand the prologue. He also gives his name and (by then defunct) phone number. There are numerous other marginal thoughts, including moments he feels are particularly cool, as well as his impression of the book in general. It was fun.

  3. Varali – Did you buy it? If not, where in Cardiff was this?

    Adi – Hm. Valid point. Incidentally, is purple the book defacer’s favourite colour?

  4. I am in the habit of writing my name,Date of purchase,place on the first page of the book.A doctor friend at chennai told me that he too was having the same habit,and he attributed it to zodiac sign.It seems most of the librans do this,ofcourse!there could be exceptions like you.
    ~vinay bhushan

  5. i read it.
    and now i read it daily.

  6. Of course I did. :-)

  7. 23? Really?

  8. Vinay – Clearly I am an exception, then! Though maybe at some point when my collection becomes so large that I can no longer remember where and when I bought things I may start writing this information down.

    Tonmoy – Thanks, I think?

    Varali – Phew!

    Anonymous – Yes, really.

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