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12 November 2005

Always carry a pencil

“What writing is all about is what happens on the page between the reader and the page...What I want is a collaboration, really, with the reader on the page where the reader is also making an effort, is putting something of himself into it in the way of understanding, in the way of helping to construct the fiction that I am giving him.”  -William Gaddis

Marginalia_3_1Not surprisingly (given the inscrutable depth of our relationship), My Personal - Poet - Patti - Laureate, Billy Collins, has spoken directly to me again by ostensibly making a commencement speech, couching his words for my ears in a vehicle he pretends is also for others to hear. This time, he’s talking about marginalia:

“When Nabokov was asked, "Who is your ideal reader?"--he said, "My ideal reader is someone who reads with a dictionary and a pencil." A very literal way of keeping alive our inner student lives, I think, is that simple habit of making marginal notations. When we do that, our pencil acts as a kind of seismograph—to register the mental tremors we're feeling as we read. I'm not talking about the yellow highlighters—that’s a device easily abused—because there is a physical, I think, almost erotic pleasure in just doing that—and, so, there's a tendency to just fill the book and just make it yellow. I'm talking about a slightly more judicious kind of notation that might go on, in which we create a dialogue with the author, and our reading becomes an interaction with that person. Such jottings are a sign of our presence, and the book we hold in our hands becomes, not just The Heart of Darkness, but my reading of The Heart of Darkness—the silent communication and conversation that took place between me and Joseph Conrad.” 

Marginalia_virginia_impartially_examinedInstead of a book, what if we’re actually writing (or not writing) in the margins of our lives?  What if our lives are books? What is the sign of our presence? Are we pressing into the margins our interpretations and questions and learnings? When the $hit hits the fan, are we circling the offending verb or noun or adjective and drawing furious arrows to the margin where we write in bold print “IRONY,” “FRUSTRATION,” “VOICELESS” “EXISTENTIAL” “PETTY” “UNFAIR!!” (Or perhaps I should be more literary in my marginalia: "very trew," "witty but not sollide nor true," and "you are much deseived.")

Or do we simply turn the pages, passively receiving what’s given, furiously disagreeing, but remaining silent about it; being thrilled by a passage, but saying nothing; recognizing ourselves, but creating no new meaning?

Years ago, my friend Rosemary lent me a fine book she wanted me to read; it was Isak Dinesan’s Out of Africa. I tried. I tried real hard. I tried for weeks, and finally had to give the book back to her, unread. Why? The cover didn’t feel right, the way it opened was awkward, and most importantly, the pages were rough to my touch. I couldn’t do it. She understood without a word. I also can’t read those small paperbacks in airport shops—the thick short stubby ones that buckle when you open them, the pages some odd manila folder color, the texture pebbly, the text too close and chubby and unremarkable and running straight to the edge of the page, clamoring to jag into that tiny margin hardly big enough to justify the name.

No, I need a page that doesn’t catch my fingers, typography that draws me to it, and white space—a generosity of breathing room, a place to reflect and interact and just “be”—when I’m reading a book. And, perhaps, when I’m living.

Are the margins of my book-life wide enough for interaction, notation—or am I running my own text straight out to the edges, creating a claustrophobic sense of urgency and fullness? Have I crammed my pages so full of stuff and activities that there’s no room for exploration and notation and learning? Am I, as my writer-hero Gaddis suggests, supposed to help construct the fiction, the page, the life?

An excerpt from Billy Collins’ poem, “Marginalia” seems in order:

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

What can I say? The man makes me laugh.

An adept reader "phrases" a book as Ella Fitzgerald "phrases" Cole Porter, here leaning into the words and holding them back, there partnering them as Kafka partnered Goethe in February 1912: "I read sentences of Goethe's as though my whole body were running down the stresses." I’ve felt that way myself sometimes when reading, and even when living. The charm of marginalia, says Lawrence Lipking, depends on their being on the edge: the borders of intelligibility (Poe) or consciousness (Valéry)—a deeper dive that is outside, marginal. Hence the name.

Sometimes, I think, the meaning is in the margin.

I_thinkOne of Darwin’s famous hand-written notations was in the margins. A rudimentary drawing of his evolutionary tree from 1870 rests under two simple words: “I think.” And history’s most famous marginal note is probably Fermat’s last theorem: in 1637, this 17th-century mathematician wrote in his copy of Diophantus’ Arithmetica “I have a truly marvelous proof of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.” Pity the narrow margin: it took 357 years for mathematicians to find that proof.

Perhaps the meaning of our lives is in the margins. Are those white spaces big enough to contain it? Or for fear of the margins appearing blank, do we fill them up? Blank space: absence or canvas? Writing in that “white perimeter” as dear Billy calls it, allows us to press “a thought into the wayside, plant an impression along the verge.” It gives a chance for “anonymous men catching a ride into the future on a vessel more lasting than themselves.”

I read Tennyson’s In Memoriam while in college, shortly after my father’s death. Notes upon notes upon notes live in those margins, some embarrassing, some naïve, some instructive of my own mind then, the river I was on: “love/grief are one” “cycle moves on” “regeneration—see Whitman” “absolution into Godhead” “he’s gone” “the way of a soul” and the ubiquitous “man vs. nature.” All a goofy, loopy, rounded, messy hand, a record of a young woman not just reading, but reading her own life, too, missing her own Hallam: “He is not here; but far away/The noise of life begins again,/And ghastly thró the drizzling rain/On the bald street breaks the blank day.” I’ve penned in the margin: “A vanish’d life, it will forever rain…me too.”

Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was evidently read in a neater era, teeny tiny notations of stars, miniscule block printing hand decorating its wee margins, underlining accomplished with an index card, so neat and tight to match the tinyness of the margins, no doubt. No loopy letters here: “learning to see” “women/fate/intricacy/simplicity” “yes, it is possible” pages 28-30 and 175-76 meriting circles around the page numbers.

There is also reading those inevitable books begun in a fury of intention, full of promise and relevance and meaning. Scribbles fill the margins until around page 61, then fall off, written with less intensity, then not at all—the impulse, the connection, the relevance lost, a long tail of incompleteness, the marginalia at the front a silent reproach each time I open them.

Marginalia_2Marginalia is a way of carrying on a larger, broader conversation, according to H.J. Jackson. It’s a physical record of our encounter with a text, scrawled or jotted in margins and on endpapers and flyleaves. As Locke said, “reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” So, too, with the life we lead, isn’t it?

Edgar Allen Poe was a great writer of marginalia, even writing extensively about marginalia: “In getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”

Taking pen or pencil to our books isn’t mutilation, it’s conversation: “It means knowing your own books. The better you know them, the more likely you are to want to talk back to them.” As Hester Thrale Piozzi put it in 1790, “I have a Trick of writing in the Margins of my Books, it is not a good Trick, but one longs to say something.”

I’ve come to realize that 37days is my marginalia, the commentary, the seismograph of my life, the longing to say something, to catch a ride into the future on a vessel more lasting than myself. What’s yours?

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Pencils1Always carry a pencil.

Life, like reading, should be interactive. Write in the margins of your life. Don’t just highlight in yellow. Engage with life, speak back to it, underline, draw arrows to connect things, ideas, people. Get angry, agree, suggest another line of thought, rebel. As Billy says—my dear, sweet Billy—register the mental tremors you’re feeling. Put something of yourself into those white spaces by way of understanding.


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When you see the title as "always carry a pencil" you might think of trial and error, learning from mistakes, starting over... and that is a form of collaboration. Patti Digh talks of words, thoughts, even living life in the margins. Read Patti... [Read More]

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Dear Patti, a wonderful post on a great many levels. Thank you.

I have had to buy more than one library book when the urge to write in the margin was not checked - for some reason they want their books returned without marginalia - imagine that?!

How do you do marginalia for other mediums? I remember the three of us Wagner boys commenting furiously as we watched TV shows growing up - it would do my heart well to hear what our crazy young Nebraska boy brains were expressing.

Mike - I love the image of three Nebraska boys arguing with their TV. And which shows engendered the most passion, I wonder? Perhaps marginalia is marginalia whether written or spoken? Go back to the library and demand your money back - tell them you're merely adding value to the public dialogue!

Yes, yes, and again yes... marginalia enables the sharing of the topic and more importantly, those thoughts that lie off the topic as well. Co-creation.

There is joy in approaching something with clean margins. Virgin thought comes to mind and where does one take it from here/there? The world is open to all possiblities.

There is also wonder in approaching something with writing in the margins. You do not approach it alone. You are there with more than the author. The path less traveled becomes an option.

The pencil/highlighter is good for hard copy. Commenting (on blogs) is good for soft copy. But hearing the voice in person is even better yet. I have had the pleasure of listening to Billy Collins at the last two Dodge Poetry Festivals.

With a little luck he might be at the next one too!

Steve - co-creation is such an important concept. I wonder why we sometimes give up that right, that power, that opportunity? It's all about the dialogue, the interaction, the intention, the sidebars that take us down a new road. I envy your hearing my Billy in person. Damn you. (Smile). Thanks for your insights...

Shawn Callaghan pointed me to this post as I had come to the same conclusion about blogs being annotations in the margins of our lives. I am so glad he did - great stuff!

I promise I'm not going to go through your archives and comment on every post you've ever written, but you've totally captured my attention this morning. :) "Or do we simply turn the pages, passively receiving what’s given, furiously disagreeing, but remaining silent about it; being thrilled by a passage, but saying nothing; recognizing ourselves, but creating no new meaning?" I'm fairly good at doing the latter...and really crappy (or should I say EXCELLENT) at doing the first.

Marilyn - Thanks so much for your notes on 37days - I'm glad it has struck a chord with you - and I appreciate your feedback, questions, notes to ponder. Thank you - and let's continue the dialogue....

Patti - I found your blog while researching for a pet project of mine on marginalia. I've read many webpages and books on the subject, (is it ironic that I added notations to many pages in H.J. Jackson's Marginalia?) but you have done a wonderful job of communicating the way I feel about the meaning of notations left in books. I hope to reference your shared thoughts on my website,, a website dedicated to the marginalia and ephemera left in old travel guidebooks. Thank you for sharing!

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