While reviewing George Eliot’s Middlemarch for class, I was put in mind today of a rather stern look on the face of my grade two teacher, as recalled from a time long past.
Not entirely pleased to have a student who had skipped grade one, and who took math every morning with the grade six class, Mrs. Thompson was not inclined to look kindly on the methods by which I did my work for her. She was perhaps correct in her charge of carelessness (as I would later realize in the gifted program, a focus on lateral thinking exercises often left me wanting for the basics of academic discipline), but for all she disliked that I never showed the work of carrying numbers in math for her class, she could never catch me with inaccurate final figures.
This made the object lesson difficult, which is perhaps why she chose to expand her search parameters one afternoon, when a boy named Anthony presented her with work that also lacked visible sign of this intermediary step. Unfortunately, his final figures were often wrong–a fact I ascertained when Mrs. Thompson called across the room (causing the rest of the class to look up, of course): “You see, Margaret? You don’t show your work and now he doesn’t, and he’s getting the wrong answers because of it.”
I do not recall my response, but my bemusement in that moment sticks with me to this day: If Anthony needed to show his work to get the right answer, fine; he should have shown his work. But why did I have to show my work because of what another student needs?
Almost two decades later, as a doctoral student of English Literature, I know I have a new and frankly curious bad habit of not showing my work: I add no marginalia whatsoever to my books, either in pencil or in ink. I do not affix brightly-coloured tabs to the pages. I do not dog-ear the corners. Indeed, so far as I have seen, I am the only one in the department who maintains no tracking method visible on the texts themselves.
Nor am I opposed to marginalia, in theory. Historical marginalia is a delight and a boon to my studies, while even marginalia left by others in my used texts can be quite endearing. Not always, though, of course: I was unable to read Ulysses until university because the only copy I could get my hands on (the library copy) was littered with “editing” of the most malignant and inappropriate manner. I tried to ignore those ignorant scribbles–I really did! But then I reached this part:
—I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?
He frowned sternly on the bright air.
—Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
—Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.
And wouldn’t you know it? The accursed blighter had crossed out the commonly anthropomorphized “she” in Mr. Deasy’s speech and replaced the pronoun with “it”, underlining the word twice for good measure and adding the phrase “countries are not people!”. I recall being on a subway train at the time, and especially upset because I had nothing else to read on the long ride home. When I returned the book I advised my librarian to burn it.
That said, I still have my undergraduate copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a text previously owned (I surmise from the contents and style of her marginalia) by a woman whose first language was probably Korean. Her English phrasing was not strong, but there was beauty in this, too: in the margins by one of the last poems in the volume, she underlined a particularly vivid description and wrote beside it, of the dying speaker: “These are his thoughts / in the last minuets / of his life.” I am glad she did not catch the spelling mistake; her error is my found poem.
But still, I cannot bring myself to leave a mark of my own in these volumes.
Well, not quite: I thoroughly enjoy stumbling upon ex libris in old texts (those owners’ marks often as varied and playful as the owners themselves), and even wrote a short history of ex libris in my undergraduate career. I would someday very much like to design my own book plate and stamp the inside of every worthy book in my collection with it.
But marginalia still feels like another matter altogether, although I am hard-pressed to say why. From a practical perspective, I understand why so many people fill their literary texts with highlighter, underscore key lines with pen, and flood the margins with short-form analysis: For one, it is an excellent means by which to keep your mind on the text while readng. For another, it surely improves recall of key concepts for many students.
I came closest to my own marginalia the summer between grades ten and eleven, on a family road-trip for which I had packed the next school-year’s largest IB text, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. As I read this 850-page volume, I made careful notes of all major plot turns, all striking symbolism, and other lines that similarly impressed themselves upon me for their literary merit. I did this in a notebook, in pencil, and being left-handed, this meant my hand was always silvered by the end of the day.
I do something similar these days, if perhaps a little less scrupulously. I accumulate quotations for each text under separate listings in notebooks and (increasingly) Word documents; I write blog posts or private, mini essays in defence of certain textual readings; I memorize lines I most enjoy. The advent of e-books has helped immensely, too (especially as most Victorian era writing is out of copyright); if I remember only a particular phrase or notion I desire for class discussion or essay writing, I simply search the online document, identify its chapter and place, then turn back to print if I wish.
Collectively, this has proved a reliable system for me for years, but as I start to think about my upcoming work in preparing for comprehensive area exams–a process that will require me to read 100 books and familiarize myself with all their surrounding discourse communities in the span of a year–I am beginning to wonder if my aversion to creating marginalia can withstand this impending marathon of academic study.
It was not for show or distinction that I did not jot down all the steps in my math as a child; it is not for show or distinction today that I do not liberally or colourfully annotate my literary texts with personal comments. I enjoy my readings in a way that simply seems to make the construction of marginalia distracting; and also, to some extent, I suppose I still feel that I do not need to leave such marks directly in my texts to know them as well as I need to–both as a scholar, and as a teacher.
Time–and no doubt future Mrs. Thomspons–will tell if this is true.