A Legacy of Thought

By Rebecca Shaw

When buying used textbooks online, it’s not uncommon for the description to include a warning: “May contain some notes in the margins.” Some buyers would write those off as damaged books and look for one closer to new, but textbooks that double as notebooks can be the more interesting reads. Today, it has become almost taboo to write in books, but for centuries it wasn’t that way. The blank border around the text was the extra paper on hand for a reader to jot down a thought. Margin notes were such a common practice that a term was coined for them — “marginalia.”

Many of the textbooks in which these side notes were discovered were formatted to leave a large margin. Different types of books have different size margins. The average paperback book would have far smaller margins than, say, a high school history textbook. However, as anyone who has picked up a second-hand copy of any classic knows, the small margins do not stop people from taking notes.

Even Thomas Jefferson took notes in his own books. This was a fairly common trait among scholars, and researchers can see the scholars’ observations about specific texts thanks to their personal collections left behind. It is through these markings that theologian Schubert M. Ogden discovered that Will Herberg and Carl Michalson both read Paul Tillich. Through the notes both men made in their respective books, Ogden learned Michalson had read all three books in Tillich’s series, while Herberg had only made it through the first volume (Scrimgeour).

Though it’s far different from the ink bled into aged pages that most are used to, even creators of electronic books added a feature that permitted notes in the margins. Unfortunately, perhaps due to the advent of e-books or merely the instructions we were given as children, handwritten marginalia is a fading art. We are becoming a society that is more interested in new things, so old books, especially “damaged” ones with writing in them, are less likely to be purchased. We lose the opportunity to see others’ insights on literature and give up the chance to inscribe our own. If the trend continues, the musings of a college student from 2017 about Gatsby will be undiscoverable to future classes — since they were never written down.




Dobrinska, Leah. “In Defense of Marginalia.” In Defense of Marginalia | The New Antiquarian | The Blog of The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. Accessed October 31, 2017. https://www.abaa.org/blog/post/in-defense-of-marginalia.

Moran, Joe. “Why I write in the margin | Joe Moran.” The Guardian. March 22, 2011. Accessed October 31, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/mar/22/notes-in- the-margin-social-networking.

Scrimgeour, Andrew D. “Opinion | Scribbling in the Margins.” The New York Times. February 01, 2014. Accessed October 31, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/02/opinion/sunday/scribbling-in-the-margins.html.