27 Apr 2013


Let marginal notes be freely made, as neatly and beautifully as may be, for books should be handled with reverence. Let numbers, letters, underlining be used to help the eye and to save the needless fag of writing abstracts.

Charlotte Mason School Education p181
I don't write in books.  As a child I used to write my name, and if it were a school book, I wrote my address too.  Sometimes that address was the long version - the one with Australia, Southern Hemisphere, Earth, The Solar System, The Milky Way Galaxy, The Universe appended to the end.  Did you do that too? Nowadays I only write my name in my book if I'm lending it to you, in the hope that you'll return it someday.  I always feel an impending sense of doom when somebody asks to borrow one of my precious books, but if I do agree, I want to at least improve my chances of having it returned.  Eventually.

My aversion to writing in books crept up on me unknowingly - at about the same time as I stopped bending the spines of even my cheap paperbacks, and dog-earing the corners even of books that I planned to dispose of once I'd reached the end. Nowadays, my books are handled with reverence.  I'm not sure that is a good thing.

At school I was an inveterate scribbler. See the margins of my poetry anthology above? Having your literature books filled with annotations and exclamations and definitions was a sense of pride.  It meant you'd actually read and thought about the passage, that you were super-clever and studious and deep thinking, and...well... other things that I wasn't. Not really.

 The photo up top shows part of my collection of of old poetry books.  It is not the prettiest shelf in my library, but it contains a number of very special books. 

The blue Shelley volume belonged to my husband's mother.  She was an extensive margin writer.  Take a look:

The old green Keats belonged to my daughter's Aunt. She annotated her poetry as well.

My grandmother owned the dark green Browning, and she used it when she was completing her BA at the University of Melbourne in 1919 - one of the first women, incidentally, to do so.

When Jemimah comes to study these poets she will be able to read these little notes. She will learn that her mother didn't much like that big fraud, T. S. Elliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, but adored Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan.  She will be able to count out Spencerian stanzas with Auntie Celia.  She can ponder the big questions of life with Grannie Jenny who died before she was born, and admire Browning as a metrical artist with her Great Grandmother Elsie. She will discover that she believed these two lines of Browning the finest in English poetry:
As the king-bird with ages on his plumes
Travels to die in his ancestral tombs.
I like to think of these little jottings as being little messages to Jemimah from those same ancestral tombs, that through them she will get to know these people from her history a little better.  She will know how they thought about things, and how they interpreted knowledge, and she will get their input into the very same words that she is reading.  When she reads How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, she will know to listen for how "the light, rollicking metre almost produces the effect of the hoof beats of the galloping horse" because her Great Grandmother will have told her to listen.
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I gallop’d, Dick gallop’d, we gallop’d all three;
“Good speed !” cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
“Speed!” echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we gallop’d abreast.
When I die, Jemimah will inherit a huge collection of books.  That collection will tell her much of who I am and what I enjoyed.  When she leafs through the pages, though, she won't get much idea of me.  She won't learn why this book is falling apart from being read so much, where that one looks like it was never opened at all.  Apart from that poetry book, and a couple of other school texts, there are no messages for my daughter inside my books.

I'm sorta sorry about that, and having thought about it, I'm going to do better.  My old school favourite, Coleridge, coined the word 'marginalia, and penned copious numbers of them.  This was written into one of Charles Lamb's books:
You will not mind my having spoiled a book in order to leave a Relic.
Whether or not it spoils a book is one thing, but he is right that it leaves a relic.  I'm going to try and do that too.

Miss Mason suggests that our students be able to write in the margins of their books, but I'm afraid that's going to take a little while for Jemimah.  It has taken me 50 years to come to this decision.  That means she still has another 39 years to go. 

Which is quite a relief for her mother, who is starting to hyperventilate at the very thought.  You can annotate a Kindle, though, can't you?


  1. lol I'm an inveterate scribbler. There are things I want to remember to watch for when I reread. There are things I forget ~ obscure references & such. There are multiple interpretations of some passages & I like to double check I haven't changed my mind. :D And sometimes ~ especially from uni, I noted something someone said about a passage I just never wanted to forget. Books aren't sacred. Just good friends & some are very used & battered indeed ~ because they are my besties.

  2. My new favourite post, Jeanne my dear! Perhaps I should notate more but I do love to read the notes in old poetry books of my sibs. Oddly I became the writer of but they are the wonderful reciters. Their stresses and pauses help me read better.
    While I like to read other's margin notes it can be distracting especially when I don't agree with them :-) The temptation to scribble in another person's book is great.

  3. I've never thought about this. I don't write notes in my books - I too did in college, but about the time a did a stint in a used book store, I stopped. I saw markings as "ruining" good books. But for our own collection, I love coming across an old book with lots of notes in the margins. Some of my most cherished books are from my grandfather, who was a minister, filled with his thoughts. I too must do better. My daughter knows I love books. My son knows I love books. But they don't know my thoughts about the passages that shift my perception. And they should. Thank you.

  4. This is such a beautifully, thoughtful post.
    My own heart has changed regarding marginalia. see, I was brought up (as many of us are) to NOT scribble in books. Probably because when I tried, I was actually scribbling, not annotating ;)
    Then, as an adult, learning to teach my kids, I discovered that ALL the very learned people seem to do this a lot! And I came to treasure books, with these little nuggets of wisdom and thoughts from a bygone era.
    I cannot imagine how precious your family heirloom scribbles are- how wonderful to have the thoughts and ideas of your family there, helping you along. Please, share some more of your grandmother's thoughts!

  5. I note in my Bible but when I note in other books I've noticed I only use lead pencil. I agree about how lovely it is to see the thoughts of others especially those dear to you scribbled in the margins. I guess it give a snippet into the thoughts of the person. Lovely.

  6. I'm with you on this - I like the idea of passing thoughts along the ages, but I can't bring myself to write in my books. At school I had a study copy of a Shakespeare play (can't even remember which one any more, we never actually studied it - just spent the whole year reading haltingly through while people asked "what does 'thus' mean?" and I kicked my heels at the back) which I did write in, but it hurt. I wince when people lay their book down open, face to the floor. And yet I loved reading margin comments from three separate people when trudging through some legal philosophy, they brightened an otherwise unbearable tome.


I'd love you to leave me a message. Tell me what you like - and what you don't. Just remember that this is what we do in our family - it doesn't have to be what you do in yours...