New Directions in the Humanities’s Updates

Scrawled Insults and Epiphanies

Image courtesy of MorgueFile | Article Link | by Anthony Grafton

Marginalia are on the march. The New Yorker reported this fall on Oxford’s Marginalia Group, which “now has two thousand five hundred and three members, making marginalia to Oxford something like what a cappella is to Princeton.” They specialize in finding the snarkiest of the notes that generations of Oxford students have entered in their assigned books. The creator of the Oxford group, April Pierce, noted that the great libraries of London also house books full of readers’ written reactions. The London Library’s copy of Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations, for example, contains such striking remarks—some clearly motivated by the text, some apparently not—as “What the devil does this mean?” and “above all there should be cake.” They were entered by T.S. Eliot, who bought the book at Marburg in 1914.

Oxford isn’t alone. A splendid exhibition currently at the Cambridge University Library recreates “Private Lives of Print: The Use and Abuse of Books 1450–1550.” The histories, romances, and devotional books showcased there have one thing in common: they were illuminated, corrected, scribbled on, and, in one wonderful case singled out by Mary Beard, covered with red ink by past owners and readers. The last spiller of ink at least apologized: “I stupidly made this blot on the first of December 1482.”

Happily, New Yorkers don’t have to confine themselves to dreaming of scrawled insults and epiphanies on other shores—or following Marginalia Monday on Twitter. On February 4, the New York Society Library, a subscription library on East 79th Street, opened Readers Make Their Mark, an exhibition of annotated books from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries from its own collection, which will remain in the Peluso Family Exhibition Gallery until August 15. In it you can see readers writing in books of every kind, for every imaginable reason.