Lit Gloss

• • • Taking Note of Marginalia

Today, despite the academy's acceptance of new historicism, the new cultural history, and microhistory—disciplines that place singular emphasis on primary sources—surprisingly few scholars make use of marginalia. In influential works like Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History and Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms, first-person records from the past (letters from a merchant ordering books from a print shop; the testimony of a miller describing his responses to books he'd read) are scrutinized for what they reveal about their larger cultural context. Documents like these enable modern researchers to partially deduce or reconstruct the mentalités of long-vanished societies.

As hard evidence of what a person in a particular time and place was thinking, marginalia are perfect specimens for historical interpretation. Unfortunately, Jackson told the Voice, "historians seem to be in a form of denial about it." Some reject marginalia as too anecdotal, since the readers who left notes may not have been "typical" subjects of their culture, yet the same is true of other period materials historians employ. Or perhaps the sheer difficulty of working with marginalia—which aren't cataloged in detail, if at all, by libraries and archives—puts scholars off.

A copy of Samuel Johnson’s Plan of a Dictionary does diary duty.
From Marginalia, Yale University Press
A copy of Samuel Johnson’s Plan of a Dictionary does diary duty.

Whatever the future of marginalia studies, the notes themselves remain amusing, edifying, and sometimes even crime-fighting. In 1997, Jackson reports, "annotated books in a Dublin bookshop helped the international police to track down a murderer." It's one of those strange-but-true stories that would make a good detective novel . . . on whose pages readers could add their own marginalia.

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