How Marginalia Helped Us Pass on Ideas and Thoughts Across Generations
Marginalia refers to the marginal notes left on books and other important documents. Think of the passages you highlight and the arrows you pull to make important observations on any type of text. That’s marginalia.
You’ve done it as you hurriedly scribbled on your college textbook as your dynamic professor lectured. You’ve done it when you circled a word in order to add its definition, or when you added a “?” to a paragraph you didn’t understand.
Some would say marginalia ruins a text, or that an immaculate page holds larger value. Others may view it as the conversations inside one’s head being transferred to paper.
Whatever your opinion on marginalia may be, one thing’s for sure: it goes way beyond mindless doodles.
Marginalia is, Essentially, a Conversation With the Author
Mark Twain was an author who took his marginalia seriously. His personal jabs at authors like Landon D. Melville were the breadcrumbs he left along the path for future scholars.
In the book Mark Twain in the Margins: The Quarry Farm Marginalia and a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Joe Fulton analyzes Twain’s humorous marginal notes throughout the works he consulted prior to writing the book.
Auburn University professor Alan Gribben has described Twain’s reflections as “so opinionated and revealing that it will often be quoted in the years to come.” Boy, was he right.
Twain’s unfiltered opinions and innermost chit-chats gave way to studies that are still relevant to current times. Mind you that A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was published exactly 132 years ago.
From there, we begin to realize how a “bunch of scribbles” can make an impact throughout generations.
The Goal: To Be Remembered For Centuries
Before his death, Pierre de Fermat’s son discovered his father’s copy of Arithmetic by Diophantus with marginalia that read:
“It is impossible…for any number which is a power greater than the second to be written as the sum of two like powers [xn + yn = zn for n > 2]. I have a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.” What was titled the “Fermat’s Last Theorem'' was never proved until 350 years later, thanks to mathematicians Andrew Wiles and Richard Taylor, in 1995.
A brief marginal conversation with Diophantus kept Fermat’s memory alive centuries after his death. I’m not sure if Fermat knew someone would discover his notes, but he certainly didn’t know the impact his theorem would have in mathematics.
Understand This: Someone Else’s Thoughts Will Always Be More Interesting Than Your Own
Re-reading your own marginalia is one thing. Your stream of consciousness is familiar to you, therefore it brings you familiar insights. Nothing new there. Other people’s ruminations, on the other hand, may reframe the way you think about particular subjects.
Fermat’s and Twain’s notes have inserted readers into a different historical context. They allowed them to step into the exact moment a spark of genius hit those guys. Besides taking part in the original inspiration for future remarkable works, readers were able to join their way of thinking.
Highlight. Scribble. Mark. Your Notes Could Fuel Someone’s Ideas, Someday
Let’s be real -- you’re no Mark Twain. None of us are. But we’re people who have words to say, and these words could help someone else. Don’t leave them unsaid.
If you have the chance to get your hands on your favorite authors’ marginalia, don’t hesitate to do so. Such an intimate view of their inner world will enrich your library and help you understand what may have planted a posterior thought.
Granted, not all marginalia will become food for thought in the future. A lot of it will be purposely discarded and paid no attention to. To the notes that remain: don’t take them for granted, as they could fall on the right hands.
Marginalia should spark sympathy, recollections, and sometimes even disagreement. If it creates emotion and that emotion is passed on, even as a momentary reminiscence or reconsideration of one’s ideas, it did its job.
Like marginalia, we’re building Glasp to give everyone the power to leave their learnings and experiences throughout their life as a utilitarian legacy for other people and future generations. If this resonates with you, please check it out!