Mass Interview 1: Marginalia

I’m trying something new — taking advantage of my contact list to ask a short question to a variety of writers. Something of a mass interview. I am answering the questions myself also, because why not? They clearly interest me.

If this goes well, I may do more. So here’s a start. Question the First:

Do you write in the books you own? How? Why is marginalia important to you — or why not?

Angie Abdou: I do write in the books that I own – especially if I’m teaching or reviewing them.  In those cases, reading is a dialogue and my brain is too frazzled to hold it all in my head.  But if I’m not going to teach or review a book, I put my pen away and just enjoy a more passive reading experience (instead of watching TV or something).

Jonathan Ball: I’ve never been able to write in books, because like Catholic guilt, the injunction against defacing books survives in the conscience even when you know better. Also, I have a superstitious fear that if I write in a book, and then re-read the book, I will only think the same thing again, rather than something new.

derek beaulieu: I don’t write in my books, ever. I used to, but I find now that when I look upon my commentary I’m struck by either an annoyance that I defaced the object itself (like chiselling “DB ’98!” in the frame of a painting in MOMA) or by the youthful idiocy of my commentary (“kilroy was here” in that same frame). I now keep any marginalia or commentary in notebooks; and while I rarely look back upon those notebooks (and they are now shuttled off to SFU for their special collections), the act of transcribing quotations or inscribing my thoughts upon useful passages is enough to mentally note the item. The act of writing is enough.

Gregory Betts: From the perspective of the question, I would divide my books into two categories. The first is my teaching/working books. These are copies that I annotate heavily. Usually, but not always, cheap paperbacks, I make extensive annotations including a detailed thematic index to the entire work on the inside back cover that sometimes spills over multiple pages. My notes in the books are not extended exegesis nor meditations on the themes, but very practical categorizations of themes, plot points, and keywords to significant exemplars. These are designed to facilitate teaching and, to a lesser extent, research. For instance, my index to Morley Callaghan’s Such is My Beloved includes an entry for “Insanity” that maps out all of the moments that foreshadow Father Dowling’s eventual breakdown, and then the breakdown itself. In this way, my annotations function like a thematic search engine for an offline database.

The second category is my reading books. I do not write in my own books with one small exception. Every time I come across a typo, I underline the error and record the page number in a discrete note on the inside cover. I am not compiling evidence against the author, and I don’t feel my compulsive gesture is antagonistic in any way. In fact, I’m not entirely sure why I do this, but it definitely reflects my belief that texts are communal affairs and that many people play a role in the creation of the work. I suppose if there was a forum for such things, or an anonymous comment box on a publisher’s website, I would happily send in the corrections to help produce a better second edition (although some typos can be rewarding on their own). Most typos to me are a bit like food between the teeth; distracting in a small way with no easy or polite way of helping out except to be direct and upfront about it and then carry on. And yes, I do this with my own books if and when I go back and have a look through them.

GMB Chomichuk: Okay. I’ll admit it. I write in my books. I do. I love doing it. I’ll never stop.  Seeds of ideas, pull quotes, reference reminders, tiny drawings that come to mind.  I have a library at home, a room dedicated to books of all sorts, but I love reference books for their great big margins. I’m a chronic corner bender as well. I had a friend tell me my book shelves have more dog ears than a kennel.  I tend to think of most reading time as study time. Study of the art, study of the craft, and so like any text book, I underline and scribble. Sometimes I write down what I think will happen at the end or ‘what it all means’, then forget, and lend the book out, and then I get a phone call telling me I ruined it for the new reader. I’m also a chronic re-reader, which is really what all those notes are for…and I’ll add to, or amend them as needed. My copies of Hagakure and Julius Caesar look like a madman has had at them.  My graphic novels have been mostly safe so far, on account of the the tiny margins, and thin spaces between panels, but I do have ragged dog-eared copy of Blankets, Jan’s Atomic Heart and the Watchmen. Marginalia might sound like a dirty word, but to me it’s just evidence of my love of books and new ideas….

Frank Davey: Hi Jonathan — yes, I scribble, underline, and draw asterisks etc in the books I own, including hardbacks, usually in pencil if I can find one close at hand. I sometimes also do it in library books, and then dutifully erase the marks before taking the book back — but don’t tell anybody. And sometimes I come across my own books in libraries and am tickled to find that readers have written in them and not erased. Indelible evidence that someone has read that far. I often enjoy reading the comments, and sometimes photocopy them in case I can incorporate them into another work. In theory one could create a succession of marginalia that comment on the marginalia of previous books. And so on.

Karis Shearer tells me that Louis Dudek scribbled in his personal books, which have been preserved as a sub-library at McGill, and that she can quickly tell which books engaged him the most, which he cared enough about to endorse, rage against, add to etc. So in that case, the marginalia definitely don’t desecrate the book — instead they’ve become a kind of ‘value added.’ And not taxed!

So, why write marginalia? — for me it’s because I buy books to use, not to collect. The marginalia help me re-navigate the book if I need to cite it, and help me argue with myself if I read a passage differently the second time I look at it. Sometimes I make a list inside the back cover of the numbers of the pages I’ve scribbled on, giving the book my own private index. With my books from my college days the marginalia let me re-visit my juvenile self & have an embarrassed laugh — maybe not ‘value added’ but at least ‘secondary gains.’ A kind of archive. If I write comments in the margins of books I’ve written, the books become worth more when they go to Simon Fraser which collects Frank Davey’s ‘fonds’. That can be a material gain. & possibly a gain to someone else — a future Karis. Which reminds me of the time John Newlove realized that he should have been keeping the manuscripts of his poems so that he could sell them to a library, and so, legend has it, began copying his already published books by hand onto random-looking pieces of paper, adding variations — creating wealth. Adding to the GDP. And oddly, even if the legend is true, the copies remain useful to scholars as signs of how he might have written. So if one is vain enough to think one’s word might be important, or at least saleable, there’s another reason to start scribbling. & saving.

Chris Ewart:


Pen in a pinch
but mostly in pencil-
especially if jotting in
my own books or if I might
copy a passage for teaching.

Highlights make me angry-
unless they are online or
on the lines of a photocopy.
When rainbows consume
too much of a text it’s hard to
remember where the pot of gold is.

I’ve tried book darts, sticky tabs and paper
clips but I get the best buzz from folded corners.

I think I’m harder on library books than on my own books-
then it’s easier to remember where I was if and when I have
to sign those books out again. Even though I don’t own those books
my notes secretly remind me I do. So does my mostly internal chuckling.

A necessary deviance.

Marginalia connotes a soft history of how I read. From a range of emoticons to eventually
illegible phrases over time, marginalia meets my immediate needs and tests my memory’s
scope. I love laughing at a concerned face or happy scribble years later.
My contexts and contentions change with my question marks.

Did those artsy monks laugh too? Has anybody
found wine stains betwixt the gilt?

What about those responsible for
the brick-like footnotes suffocating
The Waste Land?

Industry makers!

I prefer my marginalia soft-
it’s easier to sleep on
and good on toast.

Helen Hajnoczky: I write all over books that I’m reading for academic purposes, but very rarely on books of poetry that I’m reading for pleasure. I used to fold pages, but I would fold almost every page in the book so it was a little redundant. Sometimes I put sticky notes in a book if I plan on reviewing it, but if the book is nice, printed on nice, thick paper, I dislike damaging it by writing on it or folding pages. Besides wrecking the books, I also refrain from writing in them for a few other reasons. When I’m reading for fun I just like to experience the work and let it wash over me without stopping to do a detailed analysis or to pick it apart. I like to be in the moment and I find stopping to write on the text pulls me out of that space. I also don’t like coming back to a book and being heavily influenced by my previous reading of the work. You know when you pick up a textbook and someone has already highlighted bits? I always read those in a louder voice in my head. I don’t like doing that with books I’m coming back to over and over again. I like having the chance to notice something new instead of having my penciled notes telling me what to get out of the reading. Since I’m researching medieval works and looking at a lot of marginalia, I guess it’s a bit odd that I’m not leaving much of my own. For research purposes, marginalia is very important to me, but I don’t feel particularly compelled to produce it myself.

Catherine Hunter: Yes, I write in books.  I used to respect books too much to do that, but no more, with all the crap that’s around these days. Muck them up, I say! I use an indelible sharpie, with the thickest tip possible. I write in books for different reasons: to predict what is going to happen next (e.g., “since she coughed, she is obviously going to die, how dull!”); or to make note of inconsistencies and errors (e.g., “actually, there’s no such thing as ghosts”); or to note poor prose style (e.g., mark a black X across the entire page); for that last purpose, an exacto-knife can also be used to excise particularly atrocious writing–particularly useful for bad poetry. On the rare occasion when the book is good, I take the opportunity to write sweet notes of gratitude to myself, signed by the author (e.g., “with thanks to Catherine, whose brilliant insights and advice were invaluable to my artistic process in the writing of this volume”). Those I plant in second-hand book stores, so as to give the impression that I care very little for such accolades.

Suzette Mayr:
Yes, I do write in the books I own. Especially when the book is crappy and it’s written by a writer who should know better. I have to direct my rage somewhere.

rob mclennan: I used to write in my books, but only in the flyleaf or otherwise beginning, signing my name as a clear sign of ownership. I’m not entirely clear, in hindsight, who I was trying to protect my books exactly from, since the bulk of them are pretty safe from predators. Over the past decade and a half, I’ve been unable even to mark up a book with my own name, and consider it horrific for any writing to exist inside a printed book, apart from the author’s own signature and possible inscription. I can’t imagine any of my small scribbles in another writer’s volume doing anything but take away from the work. What could I add?

I try to contain my scribbles to notebooks, where scribbles evolve eventually into reviews, essays and other such writings. For me, that’s where they belong. I’m not entirely sure what it is, exactly, that prevents me marking up anything. Wanting to take care of my things? Presuming the book is a sacred text of some sort, a sacred object that shouldn’t be marked, torn or altered? I remember there was the small bpNichol “cold mountain” publication that damien lopes reissued a number of years back, a publication to be deliberately destroyed, set alight and seen properly once as destroyed; I couldn’t even do that. I even bought two, one for saving and one for “reading,” and to this day, it remains unread. Why?

I also refrain from dog-earing, which horrifies me as well, and have, for many years, used my individual “poem” leaflets as bookmarks. I’m intrigued, down that further road, to catch when I might have initially gone through a particular book I’m rereading by the poem I’ve inserted, and have long hoped that such a quirk might survive into whatever archive my library might eventually fall into (but that might be counting chickens before eggs).

I’ve chastised Ottawa poet Amanda Earl for marking up her books, dog-eared instead of bookmarked. “She counts her books in dog-ears,” I used to say. I thought that was enormously clever. She laughed. Her husband Charles groaned.

Recently I’ve been engaging with the work of Susan Howe, realizing how her own writing works through and around marginalia. I’ve been intrigued by it, finally beginning to see a point to the idea. Reading Melville, for example, described in her book The Nonconformist’s Memorial (New Directions, 1993). Melville’s Marginalia. I’ve also been going through family archives around the farmhouse since my mother died, noting particular books that either of my parents signed their own names to, in the same way, going back to their individual teenage years, or the books his mother used to teach in the one-room schoolhouse, signed “E.E. Campbell.” Signatures, but no marginalia. In hindsight, I would have welcomed such, even relished the additions. Perhaps I could have learned more about the owners of each particular volume. But some things will always exist in the past, in regret. Some things are simply no longer possible.

Maurice Mierau: Yes, I write in many of my books, in ink, with large, messy printing. Perhaps this is a self-regarding activity–as in this is a behaviour known to be engaged in by Important Writers. But I think it has value as a way of reminding yourself of what engaged you in a text, often what attracted or repelled you in an emotional way. Those first reactions are often the ones that most bear consideration later, when you re-read and re-discover your own marginalia. Sometimes you’re struck with how much your reactions have changed, or how bland your response was to something that seems remarkable now.

Jay MillAr: I don’t deface books. I keep my thoughts to myself. Or to my notebooks.

Garry Thomas Morse: Let me state for the record that I have never willingly written in a book (in the sense you mean). Not only does this and other forms of notetaking inhibit my listening methodologies, but it is yet another of my eccentricities that it troubles me to deface a book. Not because I was ever told not to. Not even because I was told to. It’s one of those oddities, like taking disturbingly seriously the space around words as living breathing space. Clearly I can tell myself the tree is already dead and what difference will a scratch of ink or scraping of lead make to it? Clearly I can rationalize a great deal of my behaviours. Of course, I am constantly obliged to deface my own books for others, whether I own them or not and there is something usurious about all of that obsession with signatures and valuation. USURA! CONTRA NATURUM! I suppose that marginalia has become something of a fetish for many poets nowadays <yawn>. In addition to my neurotic anxiety about scattering Orphic traces of myself, my main fetish in this regard is the marginalia of strangers (usually not authors unless it is intensely personal) in books. I love it when somebody is reading a passage and then they write a furious or passionate response directly to the author, preferably peppered with expletives. ie.) HEY SHUT THE FUCK UP NIETZSCHE YOU ARE SO OVER!!! The other thing I adore is dedications. I will always remember someone’s dear Aunt Renée who thought her nephew would make excellent use of Les Fleurs du Mal. Or some uncle who gifted De Sade. Where did they all end up, one wonders?

Colin Smith: No, I don’t (except to put my name in them). I’m a bit of a weird tightass that way, and am not wholly sure why. Part of it is that in the first term of first-year university I took an Evelyn Woods Speed Reading Course (yesyesyes — the one Cheech and Chong make fun of on one of their earliest records!) to help get through the redonkulous amount of reading I was going to be doing, and part of the EW praxis is that it works at maximum efficiency in books that aren’t scored (it’s a visual distraction that causes slowdown). While becoming a professional proofreader destroyed this happy facility, the annoyance caused by coming across scoring has hung around.

Having said that, I enjoy other people’s marginalia in library books. I’ve written down a few corkers for possible inclusion in my own poems (although I’m not sure if I’ve ever actually transported them). It strikes me that quoting other people’s marginalia makes for a more collaborative, communal text. Maybe it enlarges the tent that could be Our Cultural Commons.

Marginalia is for sure a core writing concept for me! (I just put my own remarks on lateral bits of paper, is all.) Everything I write is a form of social graffiti.

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