The primal scene of Marginalia takes place at a book-signing by the children's writer Maurice Sendak. Pushed to the front of the queue by his star-struck parents, a boy begs Sendak not to 'crap up my book'. Jackson's central question - are marginalia crap? - has no simple answer, for her study uncovers our passionate ambivalence about unauthorised writing. One might not expect anyone to care enough about marginalia to love them or hate them, but Jackson shows that we do both at once. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Sendak, Flann O'Brien proposed a marginalia-faking service for nouveaux riches who'd bought up libraries they had no intention of reading: 'suitable passages in not less than 50 per cent of the books to be underlined in good-quality red ink and an appropriate phrase from the following list inserted in the margin, viz: Rubbish! Yes, indeed! How true, how true! I don't agree at all. Why? Yes, but cf Homer, Od., iii, 151.' Handwritten additions to printed books can indicate attention or carelessness, can embellish a work or deface it. In crass economic terms, writing in a book may decrease its value (Jackson had to rummage through library sale rejects to find specimens of late 20th-century textbooks marked in fluorescent highlighter) or multiply it exponentially (when the annotator happens to be Galileo or Nelson Mandela).
LRB 18 October 2001 | PDF Download