In the margins, on the bottoms of pages, between the lines - people have been penning or penciling in comments about books since the printed word was born.
Among my whims and quirks about books is an abhorrence of words written - in pen or pencil - over words printed. That is why I, as a rule, never write in books, (inscriptions are, of course, the exception which proves the rule), and even the sight of readers writing or "doodling" on a newspaper is a sore one to my eyes. After reading H. J. Jackson's book "Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books" (Yale University Press), I know that I belong to a sizable minority of readers in which the author has no interest whatsoever. Jackson, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, writes about thousands of books annotated by the hands of thousands of readers, both anonymous and well-known ones, between 1700 and 2000. Readers, it seems, were writing in books since there were books (and readers). The scholars of manuscripts distinguish between "scholia" - handwritten notes pertaining to the contents of the page, and "glossa" - translation or explication of words. Over the years, the handwritten "scholia" and "glossa" in various manuscripts of works considered worthy were both incorporated in the printed versions - between the lines, in the margins, or at the bottom of the page. This is, perhaps, how the Gemara format evolved, with the various commentaries surrounding the main body of the text. And this is probably how the "footnote" got to be where it is, down under. Antony Grafton wrote a whole book, "The Footnote" (Harvard University Press) on the history of the printed footnote. His book is not to be confused, however, with "Footnotes," edited by Sherri Benstock and Susanna Ferriss (Rutgers University Press), which explores today's cultural fascination with shoes. In 1637, Pierre de Fermat jotted in the margins of his copy of Diophantus' "Arithmetica": "I have discovered a truly remarkable proof which this margin is too small to contain," thus sending hundreds of mathematicians on a wild goose chase, which ended only a couple of years ago, for a proof, or at least for wider margins. Golden age of doodlers
Anyway, Prof. Jackson tries to describe the profile of a handwriting annotator, and to figure out what it is that makes one scribble over (or under or beside) printed words. She found out that the 18th century was the golden age of readers writing in printed books. That was when the printed edition was the accepted form of the book, as opposed to a manuscript. Readers then apparently wanted to express their views, seriously or jocularly, while reading - thus, in a way, arguing with the book, which in their view represented the author. Jackson found that there were books more written in than others. Boswell's "Life of Johnson" is a good case in point: She saw 386 different copies of the book, in 126 different editions, and discovered that 201 of them were annotated by readers. Hester Piozzi, in whose house Dr. Johnson spent many happy days (she was Hester Thrale then), was herself an addicted annotator, scribbling in some books written by him, among others. She explained this habit simply by writing, "One longs to say something." Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who inscribed his comments in 700 copies of 420 different books written by 325 different authors, coined the term "marginalia" (from the Latin). Scholars found a total of more than 8,000 notes and remarks written by him in books. It is clear that Coleridge wrote not only to express his feelings about the book he was currently reading: He wrote knowing full well that his remarks would be read - by the author (preferably) or by the owner of the book. Yes, he wrote freely in other people's books. Some of them lent their copies to him hoping he would write in them. Some of his "marginalia" were even published in book form in his lifetime. It looks like Coleridge was possessed by an uncontrollable urge to write on anything immovable or printed in movable type. And thus he explained, in 1804: "It is often said that Books are companions - they are so, dear, very dear, Companions! But I often, when I read a book that delights me on the whole, feel a pang that the author is not present - that I cannot object to him this & that - express my sympathy & gratitude for this part, & mention some fact that self-evidently oversets a second. Start a doubt about a third - or confirm & carry further a fourth thought. At times, I become restless: for my nature is very social." Well, my nature is also very social, but I do not scribble over the faces of my beloved companions. To Jackson's evident distaste (not to say distress), the rise of the public library turned writing in books into a sort of a taboo, although there are libraries which will buy hand-annotated copies of books owned by notables for ready money. Nowadays, writing in books is not recommended, especially if the book in question does not belong to the would-be writer. When the owner scribbles in his own copy, he expresses ownership. When he writes in somebody else's copy, he may be invading privacy. Confusing sometimes. Jackson recounts the story of a small boy being taken by his father to one of Maurice Sendak's book-signings. "Pushed forward to get his book signed, the boy looked at Sendak imploringly and said, `Please don't crap up my book.' And Sendak, sensibly, didn't." Oscar Wilde said once: "I can resist everything, except temptation." It was very tempting to scribble in my copy of Jackson's book; at the very least, to write my name on the flyleaf. But I resisted. The copy is still immaculate, to be viewed by interested parties upon request.