marginalia

I’m thinking about the margins today. To be honest, I’m usually thinking about the margins. I love abjection. I love Anzaldúa’s mestiza consciousness, I love Chandra Mohanty. I’m all about borders, boundaries, margins and the liminal spaces between otherwise fixed categories (or at least seemingly fixed categories).

But I’m thinking about literal margins today. You know, that white space between the text and the edge of the page. For some, it’s a hallowed space that needs to be kept fresh and clean and neat and, above all, white. For others, like me, it’s a space to draw stars and arrows. It’s a space for question marks and sometimes, for exclamation marks. It’s a space to write notes, scribble words and ideas. It’s the best part of the book, in fact, because it’s there where the thinking that unites author and reader manifests itself.

Margins can also be politically productive spaces. At the 2010 conference of the International Auto/Biography Association, I learned about a resourceful suffragette who, even while jailed (and officially forbidden to write), managed to write her autobiography.  Inmates were allowed to read, but not allowed to write…so how did she do this? Well, she brought in a book of her favourite poems and sewed a pencil into the hem of her skirt. Poetry has the advantage – for the autobiographer – of wide margins. This suffragist (whose name escapes me, unfortunately, and the conference program is at work rather than here, at home) filled every single blank space in her volume of poetry (I seem to recall it was Byron, but perhaps that’s not the case. It seems too good to be true…). An artist, she also drew in the margins. And now, because of her resourcefulness – and because of those conveniently wide margins –  we have an auto/biographical fragment that otherwise would not have been written. Magic in the margins.

Margins can also be a site for initiating conversation.  Interviewed in a feature article on marginalia in the National Post (which was, evocatively, published complete with its own marginalia), David Spadafora observes that:

“There are clearly occasions where the maker of the marginalia has an intended audience — perhaps even future people who do not yet exist — and who are writing so as to touch someone else, somehow. Why did Thomas Jefferson, in The Federalist [essay collection], see it fit to annotate the text with a key that tells us who wrote those anonymous articles? Surely, Jefferson didn’t do that just to remind himself. Surely, he had another audience in mind.”

Margins are important in my work as well. Patients use margins to disagree with their doctors, for example, or to add details that they had forgotten. Doctors use marginalia to expound on a certain point. Margins, in this sense, are part of an ongoing conversation. Sometimes the margins serve a purely practical purpose: the correspondent has run out of room and uses the margins to finish off the letter. Other writers leave us with no margins at all. Instead, they fill every corner of their paper, cramming it completely full of text.

Michael Stolberg, who has examined extant copies of Tissot’s Avis au people sur sa santé, a book that a large number of Tissot’s patients claimed they’d read (and that they said they relied on for any medical need they had), observes that marginalia can give clues as to how individuals read. In the case of the Avis, it seems that the book was used as an encyclopedia. Patients read – and commented on – passages that were directly relevant to their health. The extant copies do not provide evidence that they were read from cover to cover. Perhaps, then, we might be best taking patient ‘truths’ with a grain of salt; perhaps their comments were nothing more than posturing, the genuflecting required in the presence of greatness.

But I’m not entirely satisfied with that response. After all, this conclusion is based on an examination of extant copies, and that, in itself, is limiting. For a work that was so immensely popular (going through innumerable printings and several translations, even before the end of the eighteenth century), there are relatively few extant copies, and this begs a number of questions: Were some copies so well read that they fell apart with age, their pages so well thumbed that, over time, they crumbled and the books destroyed? Is it possible that other books – filled with marginalia – existed?

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