Marginalia – part of the equipment of the modern day knowledge worker.

A friend bought a gift over from the US last week. A pre-publication of a book by Jim Lord called ‘What kind of World do you Want?’ – broadly a slim but nicely done volume which proposes appreciative enquiry as a way to tip towards positive and against negative action, without referring explicitly to appreciative enquiry (or inquiry as the originators in the US would have it).

Before the index page is an exhortation in a box:


Everything in this books is offered to stimulate your thinking.
As you turn the pages of this slim volume, allow your experience to be foremost. Write your insights in the book.
Most of us hear the grade-school librarian in the back of our heads and treat a book like a sacred object. To that I say: Go ahead, write in it. Make friends with it. Make it yours.

I was reminded of an excellent article from the Times on marginalia in December 2004 by Ben Macintyre. It tells of the rise and fall of marginalia:

“Marginalia blurred distinctions between writer, reader and critic. Passed from one reader to another, the margins and flypapers of some books became a sort of message board for this unique form of intellectual graffiti, with brief accolades, argumentative asides, addenda and insults. Even the greatest writers could be deflated with a sharp jab from the margins. An anonymous reader who rebelled against Samuel Johnson’s description of the weather as “gloomy, frigid and ungenial ” scrawled in exasperation: “Why can’t you say Cold like the rest of ye world?” Quite.”

The fall, largely brought about by the increasing access to Everyman brought about by printing, literacy and the rise of the public library in the mid nineteenth centry. And it was then, as books became public, borrowed rather than private, owned property that rules against writing in books crept in and marginalia were erased from the habits of the better behaved (always excluding the inevitable Eating Grammar owned by every prep school boy).

In the DEMOCRATIC REVIEW, November, 1844 Edgar Allan Poe says that the tone of marginalia (private jottings, thinkings out loud, or loudthinking as our driver in Saudi would have it) gives it a unconceited freshness which holds particular value:

“But the purely marginal jottings, done with no eye to the Memorandum Book, have a distinct complexion, and not only a distinct purpose, but none at all; this it is which imparts to them a value. They have a rank somewhat above the chance and desultory comments of literary chit-chat–for these latter are not unfrequently “talk for talk’s sake,” hurried out of the mouth; while the marginalia are deliberately pencilled, because the mind of the reader wishes to unburthen itself of a thought;–however flippant–however silly–however trivial–still a thought indeed, not merely a thing that might have been a thought in time, and under more favorable circumstances. In the marginalia, too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly–boldly- originally–with abandonnement–without conceit”

Although then there is the challenge of carrying the text away from its context if the scribbles are to be put to work elsewhere.

We live in a written world of marginalia now although often written with the eyes of another reader in mind so a bit more self conscious. School books are to be written on (not as graffiit as in our day but it seems much private note taking is on the text now); texts are to be circulated and added to and amended collaboratively, “blurring the distinction between reader, writer and and critic” pdfs are annotated as they are passed round as collaborative texts; blogs inviting sprawling responses from the passerby; wikis even invite people to overwrite each other. The traces left by others become important clues for those who follow as to what stands out. These clues might be misleading, borrowed without thought from other references so that references become self-referential in a pointless way; footnotes might be accumulated and cross-referenced purely to notch up credibility and lead ultimately to circular superficiality which does little to deepen and broaden insight. But we should pay attention to these notes and journallings, private, original or borrowed. They are an inevitable part of the armoury of the modern day knowledge worker, offering thoughtul traces of noticing or provocation to others as they travel and so help individuals shape their own journey and gatherings.


One response to “Marginalia – part of the equipment of the modern day knowledge worker.

  1. Marginalia — I am constantly amazed at the multitudinous ways in which we find to learn. Moreover, the markings in books also suggest that this is knowledge that needs to be remembered — thus, the act of recording in the margins thoughts as they come. The irony is that finding them again is remarkably simple if you can only find the book again. When I was younger, I could remember every page of every book. Today, I need tools to help me find the book let alone the page I am searching for. But once the book is in my hand, the very markings themselves call out to me again. The act of writing being a kinesthetic device for me to remember what I have learned and written.

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