Monster / intellectual


Oliver Sacks’ hand-annotated books. Credit: Bill Hayes


I need help. I have an obsession with marginalia.

Though I might have been called a monster (when in fact, quite possibly an intellectual), I am a big believer in heavily highlighting, underlining and writing notes in the margins of (your very own) books. My books are gloriously tabbed, and to be honest, sometimes I revel in this beautiful mess.


I, however, don’t do that in borrowed books, because it’s unethical and in some accounts, inconveniences the librarians who have to erase them later for the next person in queue. However, for those who still do so, and get to pass on the notes to others, it is “a way to turn a book into a medium for conversation and ownership — a kind of literary note-passing.”

The medium of annotating might change, but it could never replace the joy of jotting down on a physical paper. An ongoing analogue vs digital debate, an altercation as old as time:

The Kindle allows for electronic marginalia via the “notes” function, but it feels all wrong: something about having to call up a menu and type a note on the keypad, with its little stud-like plastic buttons, makes the whole process seem forced and contrived. Marginalia are supposed to be spontaneous and fluent. “Noting” something on a Kindle feels like e-mailing yourself a throwaway remark. There’s also something attractive about the contrast between the impersonal authority of the printed page and the idiosyncrasies of the reader’s handwriting. A book someone has written in is an oddly intimate object; like an item of clothing once worn by a person now passed away, it retains something of its former owner’s presence.

Maybe I don’t need help after all.

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