Margins and the Spaces of Knowledge Production

Despite their contemporary association with deprivation and exclusion, margins obey no simple, determinant logic nor advance any single, unequivocal meaning.

On the page of a book, for example, margins—especially of the kind that printers, publishers, and readers typically call “generous”—do more than merely frame and draw attention to the beauty of the composed and printed type; they invite the reader to talk back to the text, offering the reader a space in which to contribute her own thoughts, to raise her own questions, to, quite literally, make her own mark within a republic of letters formed by authors, printers, publishers, booksellers, and readers. Indeed, the history of the book seems to suggest that this consideration (i.e. the annotating habits of readers) played a role in the decisions of printers when setting the type of a particular book. Publishing a book with a sizable margin during the handpress era might communicate many different meanings. First, and perhaps foremost, it advertised to potential buyers the book’s greater costliness, since spacious margins resulted in the use of more paper—a costly commodity for most of this era and one that printers were highly mindful of. But the provision of a generous margin would no doubt have also signaled to readers how the book was to be used—namely, actively and interactively, as the great literary historian Lisa Jardine informs us writers like Gabriel Harvey and others did when reading Livy, Tacitus, or even the works of their contemporaries.1

But if margins were practically made for readers’ marginal scribblings so too was paper itself. As other scholars have suggested, the process of sizing handmade paper—at least paper that was destined for the print shop—with animal glue in order to retard its absorptive tendencies was hardly necessary in order to print on it. The oil-based inks developed by Gutenberg and others for letterpress printing proved a sufficient safeguard against “bleeding” of the ink via the capillary action of the paper.2 What one could not do, however,  was write on unsized paper; its  naturally hydrophilic  properties led to rapid absorption of the water- or, less often, vinegar-based inks used with quills. This fact had, of course, been long known to scribes in the centuries before the advent of letterpress printing in Europe, but that sizing continued to be employed even for paper bound for the print shop suggests that printers anticipated the desire of readers to write in their books.

I. “The dead whom we are shouting at.”

A fine example of typesetting done with the expectation that readers might annotate the margins can be found in Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1697). Printed in a large folio format with printed citations in the margins, Bayle’s Dictionnaire nevertheless provided ample space for readers’ annotating activity, an invitation taken up, in the example below, by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, an avid annotator who clearly showed no hesitation in marking up this (then) nearly 200-year-old book. While collectors and some librarians might shudder at what they consider a desecration of a valuable collectible, Peirce’s annotations—characteristically pointed and terse and supremely confident in their exposure of Bayle’s inaccuracies—seem entirely fitting given Bayle’s skeptical project of taking no received knowledge for granted.

Charles Sanders Peirce’s annotated personal copy of Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1730, 4th edition) held by Robbins Library of Philosophy, Harvard University.

Indeed, the addition of Peirce’s marginalia turns this otherwise unexceptional 4th edition copy of Bayle’s Dictionnaire into something unique and noteworthy, a moment of distilled and preserved time in which we catch a brief glimpse of Peirce as a reader. Like so many of us at one time or another, Peirce has approached the margin as a space for argument—”This is not so,” “Not at all,” “Not quite so,” There is no such passage…”—the pointed exceptions ostensibly aimed at correction drifting almost irresistibly toward denunciation. The impulse to quarrel with the author appears ubiquitous, crossing time and space as well as gender, race, class, nation, and language. Noteworthy and (indeed) notorious examples of it have even become the subject of other writing, as in the American poet laureate Billy Collins’ poem “Marginalia”:

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.3

In such instances, author and reader/annotator take up distinct roles and occupy, even when contemporaneous with one another, opposing temporalities: in the poet John Hollander’s apt phrase, “the dead whom we are shouting at” and their living accusers. For even when not factually so the author is functionally dead, unable to prevent the onslaught of the annotator or even to respond to the charges and questions laid at her feet.

Given these facts, the reader coming later who encounters such marginalia might reasonably ask what purpose they serve and even, perhaps, wonder whether the annotator is guilty of a category mistake, treating books as though they were people with whom one could talk, raise issues, ask questions, expect and receive clarification. It is precisely this kind of mistake that Socrates has in mind and, at least for illustrative purposes, humorously imagines committing in the famed conversation about the superiority of speech to writing at the end of Plato’s Phaedrus.

Soc. You know, Phaedrus, that’s the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive: but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words: they seem to talk to  you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing for ever. And once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.4

In his account of the helplessness (and unhelpfulness) of the written text, Socrates does not, of course, have marginalia specifically in mind. But his description touches importantly on questions raised by annotating as a practice: who is the annotator addressing and does the act of annotating constitute a kind of violation given the text’s inability to defend itself?5

II. Marginal Utility

Amusing as it might be to regard annotators as ignorantly failing to observe the difference between writing and speaking, books and people, such is not the case. Indeed, the annotator not only knows the difference between the two, she depends on it. It is precisely this difference and her awareness of it—the fact that the book and its author cannot reply—that motivates so much annotating activity. Seizing the margin, the space left for her, whether deliberately or not, by the printer, the annotator exercises and explores a form of readerly freedom: marking her approval, raising questions, expressing bewilderment, noting resemblances, developing a thought along different lines, testing out ideas that the text has overlooked. The annotator undertakes all of these with an expectation of her unobservability and unanswerability.

Marking up the margin thus not only offers the reader a measure of imaginative freedom, it performs a vital pedagogical and developmental function. The blank spaces of the page present both an invitation and a challenge: an invitation for the reader to add her own thoughts to the text and the challenge of not merely fitting those thoughts to the right words but of compressing them into a form the margin can contain. As H. J. Jackson puts it:

Critical marginalia, especially, typically arise over points of difference, oblige the reader to find words to articulate that difference, and thereby foster independence….A marked or annotated book traces the development of the reader’s self-definition in and by relation to the text. Perhaps all readers experience this process; annotators keep a log.6

Jackson’s even-handed recognition that the achievement of critical independence does not depend on annotating nevertheless identifies the distinct advantage the annotator has over the non-annotator: the creation of a record of past thought. Why advantage? Because the production of such a record creates its own archive, one that the annotator can revisit and review on subsequent readings, allowing her to take the measure of her own thinking, chart its development, observe points of continuity or of divergence from earlier thoughts. Lacking any such independent archive at her disposal, the non-annotator faces the greater challenge of relying exclusively on her always imperfect memory of past thinking. The traces left by the annotator, by contrast, prove both immediately beneficial—assisting with comprehension, textual assimilation, and aiding later retrieval—and a gift to our future selves, perhaps especially so when, on a later reading, we discover through them that we have read these texts badly, that we have misunderstood them or, worse yet, willfully misconstrued their positions. As standing reminders of our past errors, annotations can prompt us toward greater generosity or increased care in our future readings.

The American philosopher Josiah Royce appears to have appreciated this aspect of marginalia. Royce was an avid annotator, filling every area of available space with comments

Josiah Royce’s annotations to Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der Reinen Vernunft held by Robbins Library of Philosophy, Harvard University.

or, when that proved inadequate to his needs, going so far as to having his books interleaved with blank pages to provide additional space for his notes, as he did for this copy of Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes

Josiah Royce’s interleaved and annotated copy of Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes held by Robbins Library of Philosophy, Harvard University.

Revisiting his annotations at the distance of some years, Royce registered his sense of the difference and distance between his past and present selves. His notes, he informs readers, made over “various years, express also very various positions,” many of which he no longer holds.

Half title with manuscript note in Josiah Royce’s copy of Kant’s Kritik der Reinen Vernunft held by Robbins Library of Philosophy, Harvard University.

III. Annotations: Adjunct to Learning or Obstacle?

While marginalia seem clearly to address both the annotator’s present and future selves, to serve immediate needs and to provide often unforeseen future benefits to annotators themselves, the question remains: does their presence nevertheless somehow violate the text? This tends to be answered in the affirmative and to be felt most keenly by some sensitive readers for whom reading is an intensely private affair, an intimate communication or transaction between a single author and a single reader. For such readers, “annotations in a book are not merely a distraction, they are a disaster.”7 Jackson, quoted here, quite rightly regards this position as both understandable and unenviable: understandable because the presence of marginalia certainly requires greater effort for the reader who does not wish to hear any other voice than that of the author, but unenviable because the rigidity of the demand imposes its own kind of burdens (the acquisition and maintenance of pristine books) and prevents certain forms of experience, as I hope to show. As an attitude and orientation among readers, moreover— and here I feel particularly inclined to obey the injunction to “always historicize”—it is a relative newcomer on the historical scene depending, as it does, on both the widespread availability and relative affordability of books, two features that, in the history of the book, did not pertain in any meaningful sense until sometime in the 19th century. Prior to this period, such an expectation would have been largely unthinkable and, it should be said, even regarded as undesirable. The latter has to do with the long influence of humanistic pedagogical practice, which encouraged readers to mark up books in a variety of ways for later information retrieval and use, even if only with a hastily scribbled manicule or set of double quotation marks to indicate a passage to be transferred to one’s commonplace book.

Despite having gained currency only fairly recently, this attitude is nevertheless shared widely enough that it deserves both respect and attention. I was presented with a particularly strong version of it several years ago when, as the new librarian for Robbins Library of Philosophy, I quixotically proposed to the graduate students and faculty of Harvard’s philosophy department that we encourage the practice of writing in our library’s books. My arguments—which I will not rehearse in detail here—amounted to a defense of this practice based on local historical precedent (the example of Royce, James, and others, both faculty and students), obvious pedagogical benefit, and potential future research value (e.g. the creation of an archive of philosophical marginalia). Needless to say, the proposal sparked some rather strenuous objections. Some could hardly believe that a librarian (of all people!) would seriously propound such an idea, a (for me) lamentable but undoubtedly accurate reflection of our profession’s dominant attitude toward the practice.8 Others, perhaps more charitably inclined, nevertheless wondered about its feasibility. How, they wondered, could it be managed in order to achieve the goal of creating a useful archive? (I had outlines for a proposal but withheld it once opposition was clear) Still others objected to its pedagogical benefits, claiming that while marginal comments might aid the initial annotator’s comprehension they might unduly influence a later reader’s encounter with the text. But the most powerful objection—and the one in the end that I felt unable to answer—came from a graduate student who claimed to find markings in books so visually distracting as to be unbearable; “if this proposal were to be adopted,” he wrote, “the books in Robbins Library would become utterly unusable for me.”

As I write this, I still find myself returning to these words. Assuming that they accurately reflect this student’s experience, they raise important and, for me, as yet unsettled questions about whether and to what extent one ought to encourage the practice of writing in books. Don’t we, as librarians, owe it to our users to build collections that are useful? And if so, doesn’t that obligation extend to ensuring that our materials be free from distracting readers’ marks so as to be usable by those who find such marks an intrusion and an impediment to their reading? And isn’t this duty particularly incumbent upon librarians, whose collections must and should serve the needs of those of diverse means: those who can afford personal libraries bearing their personal marginalia and those who must largely rely on institutional library collections. The answers to these questions are neither easy nor obvious. For as soon as we raise, for example, the socio-economic considerations against writing in library books, we face a host of other questions, some of them squarely on the opposite side. What of the student who cannot afford to purchase copies of course texts, who must rely instead on copies obtained from libraries, and yet for whom—given the difficulty of the course material—annotation might be a considerable aid to understanding? Should she be barred from writing in the margins of these books even though to do so might place her at a disadvantage with respect to her more affluent peers? And then again: for students who find all library marginalia an intolerable distraction, should the library devote its (increasingly finite) resources to repurchasing “clean” copies to replace those already in the collection that have been marked up?

Readers who have made it this far will find no answers to these questions. The reality of librarianship is and has always been that policies undertaken on behalf of “readers”—an entity as elusive, in its way, as the unicorn—always serve some readers and not others. Libraries must take a stand on this and other issues with full knowledge that in doing so they may favor some readers and some kinds of objectives more than others. Assessing whether and how many are being well-served by our decisions, at what cost to those who are not, and how to mitigate the harm done to the latter may be the best that we can do.

IV. Affective Annotations

It may seem unfair at this point, especially given what I have just said, to make a case for marginalia’s value to subsequent readers (i.e. those other than the original reader/annotator), but I will do so. And I will do so very selectively, focusing on the affectively productive capacity of certain kinds of marginalia while recognizing that this species of annotation is not representative of the class. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this form of marginalia deserves special attention, both because it can all-too-easily be dismissed as merely maudlin and insufficiently “academic” and because it can be overly-sentimentalized and enshrined as a more “authentic” response to the text than that made by “academics.”

What kind of marginalia do I have in mind?—chiefly not those that come wearing their emotions on their sleeve. Rather I want to focus on those that, whether due to their spareness, or elliptical form, or some other set of intangible qualities, have the capacity to stir us emotionally but at a certain distance, to awaken our curiosity, arouse questions, and invite forms of lateral movement intellectually that the printed text alone might not. And by “us” and “our” I mean, minimally, “me” and “my.” Two examples will help.

The first example comes from Lamont Library, Harvard University’s undergraduate library, and bears a stronger surface impress of emotion than my second example. It can be found in a copy of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell, at the head of Mitchell’s translation of “Du im Voraus” [“You who never arrived”]. Here are the facing pages:

Anonymous manuscript annotation in Rainer Maria Rilke, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans., Stephen Mitchell (New York: Random House, 1982), 130-31. Held by Lamont Library, Harvard University [PT2635.I65 A2525 1982]
 So what do we have? In substance, very little: three sets of underlinings of roughly two lines each, along with a one sentence annotation that has been partially erased. Each of the underlinings are of full clauses and two of them occur at the end of the two stanzas of the poem. Beyond this, what else (if anything) unites them? The first two share a similar syntactic structure, a “you” set off at some remove, smaller in the first instance but growing larger by the second, from a “me.” But by the third this “you” and “me” has merged into an “us,” the only occurrence of this pronoun in the entire poem. Yet despite this, the sense of separation has deepened, the only lingering connection between them taking the form of a bird’s echoing cry that each may or may not have experienced, separately, in the past.

But it is the semi-obliterated handwriting that most draws our notice. Whose hand is it and why has it been only incompletely erased? Did the same hand that wrote these words erase them, or was this the work of a later reader or perhaps of a librarian, who nevertheless could not be bothered to finish the job? Unlike the case of known annotators, the anonymous markings we find in books always present us with at least one reliable mystery: the mystery of their authorship. It is perhaps this that, at least initially, makes them, depending on your perspective, a source of intrigue or irritation. Who was this writer who left these comments? or Who was this writer who left these comments?!?

Being a member of the former camp, I found myself speculating endlessly about the identity of the annotator whose markings I had chanced upon. Was s/he a college student? The presence of the markings in a copy held by Harvard’s undergraduate library (rather than, for example, in Widener’s copy) certainly supported that conclusion. But Lamont’s materials are also available to and presumably used by Harvard graduate students, faculty, staff, and affiliated independent researchers, so that assumption could not be guaranteed. I would have been on firmer ground with that assumption had I found it among the volumes in the Kirkland House library, one of Harvard’s upperclass undergraduate residences. And then there was also the content of the comment itself, which (pace younger readers) seemed borne of greater age and more experience than I imagined most undergraduates to possess. This left the nagging sense that these were the words of someone older. To get a better sense of this perplexity, let us look at the comment itself:


This poem has ruined me for all happiness

I confess that when I read this starkly worded sentence I very nearly wept. What deep reservoir of sadness must have been required to write these words? Of course the subject of Rilke’s poem is itself a terribly sad one—the loss, prior to all experience, in advance perhaps even of birth, of the beloved that one has never known and will never know—but for it to have been so deeply felt that it occasioned a response like this seemed to me truly terrible, almost, in fact, unbearable. When I first stumbled upon it, I recall shutting the book and hastily returning it to the shelf, a feeling of deep embarrassment, even of guilt, rising up in me as if I had intruded upon some intimacy not meant for my eyes.

It was only on returning to the book somewhat later that I could look at and handle its contents more coolly. In doing so, I realized that I had perhaps made a mistake. Had my anonymous annotator written “this poem has ruined me for all happiness” or “this poet?” It was unclear. Beneath—or perhaps on top of—the nearly entirely obliterated terminal “m” was what clearly appeared to be a “t,” the traces of its ascender and crossbar faint but still visible. Was this a judgment on this specific poem or of the entire body of work belonging to the poet? And which had been written last and meant to stand as the annotator’s final judgment? Suddenly all of this mattered to me.

It was at this point that I also began to suspect that I was dealing with someone other than an undergraduate. Didn’t the judgment on Rilke (if that was what it was) contain a dim echo of Adorno’s assessment of Kafka?—”he over whom Kafka’s wheels have passed, has lost forever both any peace with the world and any chance of consoling himself with the judgment that the way of the world is bad.”9 What undergraduate, even one at Harvard, could have ventured such a pronouncement? For while they are undoubtedly bright, Harvard undergraduates are—at least in my experience—hardly worldly, generally possessing only the facsimile of experience we call “activity.” No, the anguish simultaneously disclosed and concealed by such an expression belonged, it seemed to me, to an older order of experience, one prior to postmodernism and what Fredric Jameson has identified as its “waning of affect.”10

As dismissive or even insulting as these thoughts might appear, they are an effort in accurately reconstructing a set of impressions that I had as I studied this marginalia. They express obvious biases (about the sophistication of Harvard undergraduates, for example); draw on past experience, reading, and training; and engage in obvious speculation. They are, in short, shot through with interpretation and might be wildly wrong about any number of things, perhaps especially about the identity of the annotator. By including them I hope to highlight how speculative is the enterprise of interpreting anonymous marginalia, which must rely on always imperfect contextual cues in its reconstructions of the original scene of reading and the identity and circumstances of the reader.

But even more than this, I wish to convey something of the forceful impression (amounting almost to an obsession) this bit of marginalia made on me. That it was contained in a book in our undergraduate library was far from incidental to this obsession. For despite my considerable doubts, I desperately wanted to believe that an undergraduate had written these words. Why? No doubt in part because I wanted my biases, once they had been exposed, to be disconfirmed, both for the sake of my anonymous annotator (toward whom I felt shame, despite the fact that we would never meet, over my insulting dismissiveness) and in order to preserve a sense that the world is capable of surprising and unsettling us. After all, hadn’t my encounter with Rilke’s poem begun with the recognition of the (literally) inscribed presence of another earlier reader? Why then had I, in the process of this encounter, turned this other into something more familiar, a version of myself?

This process of initial encounter, puzzlement, speculation, hypothesizing, critical self-reflection, and subsequent revision drove home something that I had long believed about this species of marginalia but had not, until then, deeply felt: that in addition to activating in us affective states that we (and I include myself here) too-often relegate to the an extra-academic periphery, marginalia can prompt important kinds of ethical reflection. For what marginalia convey that text alone all-too-readily conceals is the brute fact of embodiment—not merely our own, but that of the numberless readers who preceded us. The traces left by these readers makes that embodiment more conspicuous and can—at least on occasiondraw us out from the confining cage of our own consciousness with its private sense-making preoccupations and to consider momentarily other readings and other readers.

At times—and my final example is, for me, one of those times—such encounters produce a kind of awareness that we, perhaps understandably but always, for me, ashamedly, tend to hold at bay. To confront them directly, to hold them deliberately before us, poses risks that we, or at least I, would rather avoid. For me these confrontations are so affectively powerful not because they involve an empathetic collapsing of distance between reader and annotator but an opening of that distance. The text I have in mind is a late medieval manuscript in Latin and Middle Irish called An Leabhar Breac (The Speckled Book) held by the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

leabhar breac

The book—the work of a single hand—was likely written by the Irish scribe Murchadh Ó Cuindlis and contains abundant marginal annotations that attest to the conditions of its production.

leabhar breac_detail

Here, at the top of the page, Ó Cuindlis has written, “twenty nights from today until Easter Monday, and I am cold and weary without fire or covering.”11

This spare bit of reportage brings back to us an awareness of the body, with all of its creaturely vulnerability and susceptibility to deprivation and pain. In doing so, it shatters whatever aesthetic pleasure we may have enjoyed or experienced up to now. In that sense, their presence confirms what opponents of marginalia have often complained of: marginalia are intrusive, disruptive, ugly, anti-aesthetic.

But it may be that we need this ugliness. Reading Ó Cuindlis’s words, I am reminded of other bodies that have been cold and of one in particular whom George Steiner has written about:

In the Warsaw ghetto a child wrote in its diary: “I am hungry, I am cold; when I grow up I want to be a German, and then I shall no longer be hungry, and no longer cold.” And now I want to write that sentence again, “I am hungry, I am cold; when I grow up I want to be a German, and then I shall no longer be hungry, and no longer cold.” And say it many times over, in prayer for the child, in prayer for myself. Because when that sentence was written I was fed, beyond my need, and slept warm, and was silent.12


1See, for example, Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, “‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy,” Past and Present 129 (1990): 30-78.
2This has to do with the non-polar properties of oil molecules.
3Billy Collins, “Marginalia,” Poetry, February 1996 (
4Plato, Phaedrus, trans. R. Hackforth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), 158.
5Moreover, it reinforces a point made earlier: the functional death of the author upon the moment of publication. It is the natural condition of writing to drift and to do so immediately (“when it has once been written down”) and indiscriminately (“getting into the hands…of those who have no business with it.”). While Socrates assumes limits to this drift, allowing at least for the embarrassing possibility of writing’s rescue by its parent-author’s logos, we must nevertheless imagine—given writing’s inbuilt errancy—drifts so total as to prohibit all rescue. This is the translation favored by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (See Plato, Phaedrus (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995), 81. Nehamas and Woodruff construe κυλινδεῖται, Plato’s term for the text’s activity, both more strictly and in more suggestively sexual terms: “every discourse rolls about everywhere.”
6 H. J. Jackson, Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2001), 87.
7Ibid, 242.
8Anecdotal evidence of the pervasiveness of this attitude can be found in an exhibit I had the good fortune to see at the recently renovated library of a prestigious liberal arts college. The subject of the exhibition was collection care and preservation and, in addition to containing examples of books with missing covers and damaged spines, included an entire case devoted to books containing marginalia. The case bore the label “Damage.”
9Theodor Adorno, “Commitment,” in Ernst Bloch, et al. Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 1980, c1977), 191.
10See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).
11For the translation of these words see Timothy O’Neill, “Law Texts,” in Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia (London: Routledge, 2005), 443.
12George Steiner, “Postscript,” in George Steiner: A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 258.


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