KR Blog

Marginalia

I was reminded earlier this week, as I stumbled (I mean literally accidental (this bird should have been somewhere else)) into the Schatten Gallery in Emory’s Woodruff Library–where a new exhibition on The Black Sun Press was about to open–how interesting marginalia can be.

Looking at the books and the photographs of books in the exhibit, I was taken by (Black Sun Press founder) Harry Crosby’s signature, the strong horizontal stroke showing the deliberation of the signatory but also the beauty of the fountain pen, which sent me into a brief reverie about signatures–the calligraphic idiosyncrasies especially of the age of fountain pens, both of which are passing or already passed–and the curiosity of marginalia.

When, on occasion, one sees a movie with friends and some of them agree to sit afterward and talk about it, one’s attention is often redirected to details nearly lost in the first watching. As a “book person” in such moments, I hunger for a similar exchange about the books that are particularly stimulating to me, though finding someone who’s read the same book is a challenge and finding someone who’s engaged that book with a similar seriousness and investment an even greater challenge, and then when you find your ideal interlocutor, often you’re getting in conversation just the synoptic version and not a real line-by-line treatment–which may also be passing away in an era whose criticism is less explicatory than argumentative. You rarely get to see your interlocutor’s reading, as a process, and even more rarely get to see your interlocutor’s book–where a mark or a comment or even a dark spot of oil in the corner of a page might say something about what he or she found of special interest.

In most cases, marginalia reveals inattention, the inability to remember a key moment, or attention to something that’s elsewhere, on another hand, like the name of a man written in a loopy hand, highschoolish crushscrift. We close the book and put it back, disappointed that this invasion of the margins, whatever it tells us about the afternoon of one or more girls in the mid 1970s, hasn’t offered us another reading of the text–unless the book is Lolita and the name is one you recognize from the faculty roster.

Yet, at times, a library will disgorge an author’s copy of a particular book in which the marginalia helps one reconstruct a moment of attention or even a habit of attention. Melville’s marginalia show us what he read, and not only how he constructed some of his work, but how he thought–and it’s brought us new poems, in Susan Howe’s “Melville’s Marginalia.” Looking at Keats’s copy of Paradise Lost showed me not only how he read Milton, but it also, at a crucial moment in my education, showed me something about reading itself, the importance of taking notes while reading and the place of a text as a prompt for one’s own ideas–a place to branch.

These are rare instances, of course, and the best we can usually hope for is that, when we find an annotated copy in the library, it’s been updated by someone with actual intelligence, someone who’s read the work in ways that are interesting and actually add something to our reading, rather than make us wish we had a clean, unmarked copy. As I read the Emory Library copy of Larry Levis’s second book, The Afterlife–checked out three times (January 1979, July 1991, and May 1993, at least two of these withdrawals being from professors, since they lasted so long)–I wonder why someone has marked, in blue pen, two poems–“The Map” and “Readings in French”–one somewhat known, the other quite obscure? Why, too, do the pen marks seem to highlight particular lines? What, for example, was important about the line “Around me in the fields, the hogs grunted” (“The Map”) and the line “the giant sea crabs, / The claws in their vague red holsters” (“Readings in French”)? Is someone/was someone developing an essay about Levis’s relationship with animals?

What–I wonder today, packing a copy of Philip Levine’s Not This Pig to read while I help my brother roast a hog–is the future of marginalia?

I’ll let Billy Collins have the last words on this one:

I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page
A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”