For nearly 400 years, mathematicians struggled to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem: that for the equation xn + yn= zn, in which x, y, and z are non-zero integers, n cannot be greater than two. Although a proof was finally found (involving modern topographical theory and computer calculations) in 1993, the mystery surrounding the theorem remains. In the margin of a book, the 17th-century Frenchman Pierre de Fermat noted that he’d discovered a proof of his theorem but didn’t have room to write it down, the margin being too narrow. His tantalizing comment has haunted number theorists ever since—not to mention Tom Stoppard. In his play Arcadia, a character quips of Fermat, “There is no proof . . . the note in the margin was a joke to make you all mad.”
Marginal notes are rarely as maddening, or as well known, as Fermat’s, but they have a long literary history, from the glosses in medieval manuscripts to the snide jottings found in Graham Greene’s library after his death. In Marginalia (Yale University Press), the first survey devoted to the subject, University of Toronto professor H.J. Jackson unearths a wild and woolly variety of the notes people have scrawled in books over the centuries. For nonspecialists, the charm of marginalia often lies in trivial reflections, ones seemingly too frivolous for inclusion anywhere else. In a copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, “Martin Scriblerus” (actually the diplomat Fulke Greville) wrote the following rebuttal to Johnson’s claim that The Beggar’s Opera had no direct effect on contemporary crime rates: “Years ago I got acquainted with the highwayman (the Milk-boy) who told me . . . how his first idea of being a Highwayman was taken at the beggars opera.” Another member of Johnson’s circle, the author Hester Piozzi, left numerous annotations in a copy of her book A Review of the Most Striking and Important Events, Characters, Situations, and Their Consequences, Which the Last Eighteen Hundred Years Have Presented to the View of Mankind, including the fact that she knew an Irish lady who won at cards with the help of a “Lypercorn Fairy,” or leprechaun. Thanks to such notes, the Milk-boy and Lypercorn can take their rightful place in history.
Of more value to historians are fugitive glimpses of the great, like an unidentified reader’s account of how the young Johnson liked to fight dogs—he “would conquer almost any Mastiff” by keeping his eye “steadily fixed on the Dogs Eye.” There’s Coleridge referring to himself as “S.T.C. i.e. Sinful, tormented Culprit,” and Gibbon criticizing Herodotus (re his tale of a drowning man who rode to safety on a dolphin’s back): “Most unphilosophical fable! Since it supposes the friendship of a man and a Sea-fish.” (Not included in Marginalia, which focuses on the 18th and 19th centuries, is Sylvia Plath’s tart rejoinder to herself in her teenage diary; next to “What is more wonderful than to be a virgin,” she later added, “being raped.”)
The will to marginalia can prove near irresistible: Horace Walpole, despite his gouty hand, ignored the pain to keep producing a steady stream of notes. Sometimes the vehement feelings provoked by an author can’t be kept to oneself, but must be exorcised through the pen, as when Greville exploded on one page of his Boswell, “Bozzy, Thou art an absolute Idiot.” The urge to annotate reached its height during the Age of Sensibility (perhaps not uncoincidentally, also an age when the quantity of alcohol consumed daily by a gentleman would stagger a frat boy). Fanatic note-makers used to purchase a book in loose sheets, then have it bound with blank pages interleaved to allow more space for their observations.
Along similar lines, a popular hobby of the 18th and 19th centuries was “grangerizing,” the pictorial equivalent of written marginalia. Named for James Granger, who published a catalog of famous Brits’ portraits in 1769, the verb “grangerize” means to insert illustrations (prints, drawings, etc.) of one’s choice into an existing book. Some volumes were sold ready for grangerizing, with blank pages on which to paste illustrations, whereas the upper classes preferred to get the original text and chosen plates bound together into a finished product. (One husband-and-wife team, starting out with four books on the English Civil War, managed to grangerize them into 57 oversized volumes.) Jackson cites, among others, the example of a Victorian tome titled Lives of the Engineers, to which its owner added not only images of the said engineers, but also a picture of a country path (to accompany the phrase “rude tracks”).
While librarians since the 18th century have frowned on the practice, readers persist in defacing texts. Jackson demonstrates the continuing taboo against marginalia with a leaf from the National Archives of Canada’s 1981 handbook. One photo shows the librarian’s ideal, a bespectacled chap in jacket and tie, perusing a volume as he makes notes on a legal pad. In the other photo, we see his opposite number: a gorilla—or person in a gorilla suit—using a marker to highlight and scribble all over his book. (No wonder gorillas are denied entry to libraries.)
It wasn’t always so. From Erasmus’s time, students have been taught to take notes in their schoolbooks in order to enhance the learning process; by stopping to think about a passage, then writing appropriate comments, the reader gains more from a text than by simply plowing through it. (Of course, not all note takers reap the full benefits of this method. One Edwardian schoolboy jotted such scintillating analyses as “Pah!” and “Hullo!” in his copy of Rousseau’s Social Compact.) Students are also more likely to remember what they’ve read if they summarize key ideas in marginal notes. In a phone interview, Jackson explained that many 17th-century English books contain annotations by students, but that the technique dropped out of educational theory during the following century. In more recent times, the expansion of public schooling (with textbooks provided by the state, not bought by students as personal property) probably led teachers to prohibit writing in books.
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.
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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 10, 2001