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Nota Bene

MARGINALIA By H.J. Jackson; Yale University Press: 368 pp., $27.95 paper

February 25, 2001|MELVIN JULES BUKIET | Melvin Jules Bukiet is the author of "Signs and Wonders" and the forthcoming "Strange Fire."

After my sister borrowed and highlighted my copy of "Ulysses," I screamed at her and refused to lend her another book; that was 30 years ago. Likewise, I've shunned purchase of used books that bear signs of other readers. But scribbles on books have existed for nearly as long as books themselves. They range from nonverbal underlining to the banal "How True!" to more personal or professional commentary that often tells us more about the note writer than the notes tell us about the books so annotated. Herein lies the story that H.J. Jackson tells in her curiously illuminating new book, "Marginalia," a phenomenon that she defines as any unauthorized writing anywhere in a printed book. Examining English-language writings of the last three centuries from libraries and private collections, she has put together what is clearly the major text on this minor subject.

Or is it so minor? Reminiscent of other volumes on specific aspects of biblioculture such as Anthony Grafton's "The Footnote," Henry Petroski's "The Pencil" and Thomas Mallon's history of plagiarism, "Stolen Words," Jackson's "Marginalia" uses her little niche to explore a larger terrain. Delineating the basic eras and styles of marginalia as those of Competition, Sociability and Subjectivity, she tracks how books infiltrated the minds of their readers through the ages and explicitly or subliminally encouraged reply.

The simplest of marginalia are statements of ownership, usually in the upper right hand corner of the first page, but even these display individual character. Staking turf to his Third Reader in 1897, young Robert Odell warned, "Steal not this book for fear of life for the owner has a big jackknife." Less threateningly, they may also serve as convenient repositories of domestic experience: "Eliza Noble . . . has got the whooping cough and cannot come here which I am very sorry about, for she is a charming girl." Whether unbound paper was hard to come by at the moment poor Eliza went into a fit, or whether her grammatically-challenged sympathizer was just catching a thought on the wind, we can only conjecture.

Beyond that is glossing dictated by the nature of the book itself. Cookbooks are likely to have additional recipes inserted, as field guides might include sightings of rare birds.

The potential trove of anecdote and criticism is richest when the marginalia-maker is adequate to the material. For example, T.H. White's thoughts while reading Jung suggest how the latter's notion of the collective unconscious played itself out through the former's redaction of Arthurian legends. Marginalia are not merely an aid to memory but a dialogue--sometimes addressed to the author and sometimes to an invisible third party--which can provide intimate glimpses into the psyche of both writers and readers.

As Jackson tells the story, weaving deftly between general principles and examples, such marginalia were, in their 18th and early 19th century heyday, a semi-public form of discourse analogous perhaps to a computer chat room. Until libraries decried the act, books were deliberately commented upon and circulated. In the case of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with whom the genre reached its apogee (and who gave it its Latinate name in 1813), they were later collected and published under their own covers, presumably to generate further emendation.

Of course, the most enticing marginalia are the most intemperate. Coleridge, regarding something called "Poeticarum institutionum" says, "I have looked thro' this book . . . and seldom indeed have I read a more thoroughly worthless one" while Samuel Clemens passes his inimitably vernacular judgment upon a translation of Tacitus: "This book's English is the rottenest that was ever puked upon paper."

Glib, titillating vitriol aside, when one literary giant thinks about another, the effect is galvanizing. Though narrative tends to be less frequently annotated than other genres, Keats' wrestling with Milton ("What creates the intense pleasure of not knowing?") may hint at the gestation of his theory of negative capability. In the extended, engaging excurses of "Marginalia," we also get Gibbon on Herodotus and just about everyone on Samuel Johnson, whom Jackson uses as a sample, scouring multiple versions of his own work as well as more than 300 copies of Boswell's "Life of Johnson." Sometimes she unearths biographical details by those who loved (or hated) the authors and provides further insight into the reception of their work.

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