Most of us can recall (with shame, fear, or both) the warnings of parents and teachers regarding writing in the margins of books. Cute childish scribbles, elaborate adolescent doodles - or one's cleverest penciled responses to one text or another - provoked the same horrified response from the librarian. Dr. H.J. Jackson asserts and then asks, "Of course children should be taught not to write in other people's books; but why should they be denied the outlet of writing in their own?"
"Annotation," known by your grade school teacher as "ruining your books," has a long and colorful history. Erasmus recommended to his students that they write in their texts. In England, Coleridge was revered in his day as now for his prolific commentaries and, according to Jackson, "his name associated with the publication and popularization of the genre." At one point English children were taught how, specifically, to best annotate their books. Importantly, annotation was finally seen in a positive light, as a way to read actively: "a discipline that fosters attentive reading, intellectual self-awareness, and incisive writing."
Dr. Jackson's tour of marginalia's most ardent and consistent practitioners reads like a "Who's Who" of English-speaking literary history: Sir James Frazer, Boswell, Johnson, Hester Lynch Piozzi, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexander Pope, Virginia Woolf, John Ruskin, William Blake, Ellen Terry, T.H. White, Gertrude Stein, Northrup Frye, Vladimir Nabokov - and many more. In addition, much good annotation was done by readers whose names have been lost. There are hilarious anecdotes and quotes as well as perceptive character sketches. Jackson loves her subject and her cast of characters - and includes many interesting and amusing stories about the lives of the annotators. (In one anecdote Maurice Sendak, at a book signing, is warned by a panicked child not to wreck his new book - by autographing it. Sendak complies with the child's wishes.)
In addition Dr Jackson discusses North American and British museum and library collections of annotated books. There are novels, nonfiction, family bibles, college textbooks, cookbooks, and children's books in addition to classic and obscure texts.
Dr. Jackson is passionate about her subject. She's been at it for years. Addressing the arguments against its practice. She includes a thoughtful essay "Book Use or Book Abuse." There are hundreds of endnotes, a Bibliography of Annotated Books Cited, a Bibliography of Secondary Works Cited, and a good index.
This thrilling and careful study is by turns English literary history, the history of books and reading, trenchant psychological exploration, and biography. In addition, there is mystery, gossip, and fun. This is a wonderful book on a subject I'd never given much thought to, not realizing that writing in the margins has a glorious past - and having felt vaguely guilty for years for penciling so many of my books.
Definitely worth reading.