Marginalia- The Lost Art of Conversing with the Books

what is marrginalia

Somewhere around ten years ago, I clearly remember how I started reading books and eventually scribbling my thoughts on the pieces of paper. At times, it’d be a back of the book, sticky notes or just a notepad.

When the size of thoughts started to thicken, I went on to writing over the computer. Now that I look back at it, I realise that reading and writing are intertwined and form a sort of fundamental yin-yang on how ideas are pondered, travelled and penetrate the mind.

I don’t exactly remember how I started writing at all. Though, I recall a peculiar habit I cultivated withing few initial years of reading. The habit of inscribing my thoughts on the margin. Or as we say- marginalia. Marginalia provided me with the space to speak freely, to talk to myself boldly, originally, without any mask or conceit.

I consider reading a book as an active activity. An activity where you showcase your agreements or differences with the ideas being discussed and eventually form an opinion of yours. And marginalia exactly helps you that. Yet, I observe people hardly knowing about this let alone people practising it.

What is Marginalia?

Marginalia is the art of conversing with the book. It is annotations, expansions, corrections, connections, additions, illustrations, conversations, questions, etc. that you write on the page margins.

In the medieval ties, monks inscribed illuminated manuscripts and the surrounding texts with intricate and symbolic pictures and patterns. And that is how probably the art of marginalia started.

Adler and Van Doren in How to Read a Book precisely conveys the importance of marginalia.

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it–which comes to the same thing–is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake–not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably, he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

In the age of Instagram captions, how marginalia will survive is definitely a topic for debate. Whether they survive or not, they definitely are and will be an essential canvas for digesting and retrospecting perspectives, a voice box to out inner monologues and epiphanies.

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