Tag Archives: marginalia

Marginalia by Billy Collins

From the fabulous blog, Brainpickings.


Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird singing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page –
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil –
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet –
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

Playing with words

My boys loved Lego. I love dithering about with words. I find it similar – you take tiny little pieces of things and then stick them together to make something larger and more special than any of them alone. Similar to needle felting, another recent craze.

I’m distracted today. It’s gorgeous outside and on Facebook, the latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is being talked about. From what I can tell, it’s all about words. There have been some wonderful postings about marginalia, those things others have written on the edges of books, around the type. I must confess I treasure these myself when I find them. They let me feel a link to the others who read the book, give me a window into their thoughts.

So in my little mind, I start to think about what it would be like if libraries had a section where people were encouraged to write comments in the books…and I vow that I’ll be making notes in my own books. They’ll help me understand myself as I look back.

I find my scrawlings in old cookbooks are revealing, for example. I see notes about who liked what, about how to make things better, about recipes I vowed never to make ever again.
But I rarely write in other books. I was always told this was unspeakably evil.

and yet…

Playing with words means breaking some of the rules – putting the red Lego brick where the grey one should go, turning castles into spaceships, walks into mystical voyages.

Maybe it’s time to write outside the lines.