Making a Mark in the Margins: Twain, Plath, Biden and Me

June 4, 2021

I probably wouldn’t have read a recent Washington Post article about Joe Biden’s personal habits if it hadn’t carried a photo of the president with his two German shepherd dogs, Champ and Major. I share his love of the breed, have a GSD myself, and follow news of the dogs’ new life in the White House.

For the record, Major’s minor nipping incident was NOT the dog’s fault.

But this post is not about dogs; rather it’s about books – another thing our current president likes that the last president didn’t. And once again, it turns out that Biden and I have something particular in common.

We both, whether by design or simply because we can’t help ourselves, practice the art of marginalia.

From the Post article: “He (Biden) marks up books very profusely,” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said. “He writes in the margins and highlights and underlines.”

I do as well, and while I don’t know about Biden, my preference is for pen.

Two things I feel sure no one will steal from me are my books and my car; the first because no one can read them, they are so marked up, and the second because almost no one can drive a stick shift model any more. Of course, if I were famous, my books would soar in value; my car, not so much.

I’ve spent a small fortune on books, because obviously I can’t borrow them from a library, or even from forbearing friends, and return them with page after page looking like a chalkboard that someone forgot to erase.

I don’t know if anyone has analyzed what personality type tends to practice marginalia. Are we self-absorbed, and singularly unconcerned about making a mess of things? Perhaps. I prefer to think I do it because I’m a writer, and consequently an obsessive note taker. I suppose it could also just be in the genes.

My maternal great-grandfather, a rather prominent Southern author, speechmaker and educator during the Reconstruction era, wrote profusely in his books (see photo), a great boon to me since I am writing my own book about him.

My paternal grandfather, a first-generation Italian-American with eccentric business ideas, amassed a large library, read and wrote his opinions in all the books, and then offered them for sale. This did not prove a lucrative venture, because he forgot to become famous first.

History is replete with famous practitioners of marginalia, quite a few of them politicians and writers. I suspect this is attributable to a hyper intense desire to communicate and to leave a mark for wider posterity.

Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Vladimir Nabokov and Sylvia Plath all wrote in their books. Edgar Allan Poe preferred books with especially wide margins so he could scribble more. Now we can add Joe Biden to the list.

As for the Kindle effect, you can, of course, type notes into your device.

But for real practitioners of marginalia, just as there’s no substitute for the tactile turn of a page, there’s no substitute for the passionate, intimate sweep of a pen. And any bookseller or historian will tell you, there’s far more enduring value in it.

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