The Marginalia “Crisis:” now with update!

Today’s New York Times has an article on marginalia–the scribblings people often leave on the edges of books. “Some fear dim future for notes in margins,” says the headline. “Some” may fear this, or it may be that “some, facing deadline pressure, invent fake trend story.” Marginalia is overrated, and the enterprise of loving marginalia is corrupt.

Early in my career I was once at a dinner with Hsi-Huey Liang, a distinguished diplomatic historian specializing in Germany. At the time I regarded diplomatic history as a dreary sub-field, hidebound and   boring, prone to endlessly asking the same questions about the same documents.[1. I still basically think that, to be honest]. Liang, recognizing me as callow, asked why a historians would ever want to look at anything other than what people chose to leave of themselves.

Over the years I’ve come back to his question a lot. You would never break into your neighbor’s house and go through his closet, even though doing so would give you a lot of information about your neighbor. It’d be a crime but also indecent and disrespectful. But the dead are mostly powerless; we can do as we please with them. Liang was slyly pointing out the unexamined contradictions in our allegedly humanist enterprise. Why don’t we accord the dead the same respect as the living?

The Times article on marginalia treats it as a glimpse into people’s private selves: “what Jefferson thought as he read X.” This is important, we’re told, because Jefferson is important, and we learn more about this important man via his marginalia. But we already know what Jefferson thought: he vented his opinions publicly, in carefully considered ways. Why would we want to look at the opinions he did not chose to express? Isn’t it just the same creepy impulse that leads people to spy on their neighbors?

Well, you might answer, Jefferson didn’t want us to know he was having sex with Sally Hemmings, but the fact that he did is important to know. I’m not sure–we already knew Jefferson was a hypocrite in his views on slavery. We know from the public record that he alternated near total dependence on slaves with attitudes of contempt. Aside for the salacious, dirty laundry quality of the revelation, does it show us much new about Jefferson? I’m not sure.In the image from the Times, is anyone who’s read any Mark Twain at all surprised that he would dislike Mary Baker Eddy? The prvate snark only confirms what he wrote publicly.

So with marginalia. The Times finds a small group of people who it quotes being concerned about the decline of marginalia. What they are really concerned about, I’d argue, is the losing the exclusive capacity to gain a limited view into the private lives of dead strangers. [1. I have a number of books belonging to two very dear friends who recently passed away. Some of them have extensive handwritten marginalia, and these mean a lot to me. The marginalia give a record of how they thought, and in turn a record of their personalities. These are nice to have in a melancholy way. But I already knew them privately–they were my friends, I knew what they thought about most things. I keep them because they had already allowed me into a degree of their private life, and so reading them isn’t snooping.]

What’s really at stake in this “problem” is the way we construe public and private. The value of marginalia is for the most part the voyeuristic thrill of seeing the private made public. The digital age will create more forms of annotation, more commentary, more “marginalia.” but it won’t have the same creepy snooping quality. And that’s a good thing.

Update: I’ve gotten lots of tweet critiquing this post, which seems only reasonable,  since the post takes a pretty extreme position. I’d like to agree that yes, useful information is gained by looking into the private spaces of the dead: useful for the historian. The same could be said about burgling someone’s house–it could produce lots of good things for the burglar. I don’t really think historians are burglars, but it seems to me that anyone claiming to be an intellectual has an obligation to think about what they are doing–or rather, about what they do does. A colleague points out that if you want to do the history of 19th century women, of course you need to look at private life, because women were for the most part denied a public life. That’s surely true, but what you are looking at then isn’t really 19th century women: it’s a 21st century idea of what 19th century women should have been: a life constructed in the private sphere brought into a realm it was never designed for or imagined to occupy. This isn’t an argument against doing that work: It just seems to me it’s worth being aware of what’s going on when we do that kind of work.

My own dodge around this problem is typical of cultural history types: I don’t write about actual people, I write about “discourse.” Not actual black people, but the discourse of race. Not actual women, but the discourse or the “debate about” gender. I wrote a dissertation/book about  the invention of standard time, not about the private experience of time. This is itself a contaminated and flawed position.

Regarding marginalia: the Times piece had a lot of the creepy celebrity snoop quality: Mark Twain once touched this page! But what I really wanted to get at, and failed to get at, is the way digital media has vastly increased the scope of “annotation,” while dramatically reducing the sense of the private equaling the real. The times essay deplores the loss of access to the private. But if what’s valuable about marginalia is the record of thought evolving, then a publishing style that emphasizes “publish first/filter later” will only provide more of that kind of material. And since publish first/filter later puts more of a premium on open debate, and less on the public/private division, it should foster a culture in which “marginalia” become more important, not less. But the “marginalia” of the digital age won’t have the creepy voyeuristic quality.


  • Mike Bottoms wrote:

    But we already know what Jef­fer­son thought: he vented his opin­ions pub­licly, in care­fully con­sid­ered ways. Why would we want to look at the opin­ions he did not chose to express?

    Perhaps because the evolution of an idea can be as important as the idea itself?

    I, too, am suspicious of the notion that marginalia can offer a coherent or trustworthy picture of someone’s thinking, but the suggestion that we should confine ourselves to author-approved public statements seems odd, particularly when raised in relation to politicians. Polk’s 1846 War Message was a “carefully considered” pack of lies, but one would have to refer to private communications to learn this for certain. Carefully expressed opinions can be used to obscure true feeling as often as they can be used to illuminate it.

    What about early drafts of speeches, letters, etc.? Lincoln changed his mind about race, slavery, and the Constitution over the course of his political life, and while his public statements mark the broad outlines of those shifts in thinking, the step-by-step process is really only visible in documents never intended for public consumption. While the final expression of his thinking mattered most for public policy, the evolution of that expression tells us a great deal about the contours and constraints in nineteenth-century thought.

    But it seems to me that this isn’t really what you’re getting at. The objection isn’t really about privacy for historical actors per se, but about a particular kind of privacy. It seems to me that you are placing examinations of the intimate lives of historical figures off limits, and in the process you are making a claim about what constitutes legitimate historical inquiry. Some might argue that Jefferson’s intimate life is really none of our business, and further that it was really irrelevant to his public acts. I think this is wrong. The choices that we make on a daily basis, big and small, are always to some extent shaped by the demands of our intimate lives. Lincoln’s sexuality, and his awkward relationship with his crazy-ass wife profoundly influenced the course of his life. Why shouldn’t that be a part of history?

  • There’s no doubt you could learn a lot by going through your neighbor’s closet. Why aren’t the dead entitled to the respect given to the living? Is it just that they can’t fight back? Does the craziness of Mary Lincoln color the emancipation proclamation? probably, but so what? So does every other singe thing in Lincoln’s life. The proclamation was the thing that mattered.

    I’m skeptical of the idea that the real or the true lives in the private, and also of the idea that historians talk about respecting the people of the past (and even “empowering” them) while rooting through their metaphorical underwear drawer.

  • My concern is how we know where the underwear drawer ends and the items for show in the living room begin (lovely imagery). For example, diaries. Historians argue that some public figures self-consciously wrote diaries knowing they would be made public in the future. Others, I’m assuming, did not. How do we know the difference? Do we need to figure out intent, whether I purposely hid a hideous paper I wrote in the drawer or proudly hung it up in my living room? How do we do that?

    On a personal note, I still have books from my first semester at grad school with marginalia in them. They are good for a laugh. Seriously, they show how far I’ve progressed in knowing how to read a history book and how I analyze the information. So it’s important to me. Would I have a problem showing you those books? Not at all. Others may. So should we never look any, or figure out how to tell the difference?

    (Also – I have to question, do the living really get as much respect as you say – with cameras everywhere, the Internet, blogs, identity theft? Even websites want your dog’s name and what grade you got in middle-school math. So in a way, we are metaphorically going through people’s underwear drawers all the time.)

  • Wait – you said closet.
    Where did I get underwear drawer from?!
    Oh well it still fits.

  • Yes–I would say that the end of book marginalia will come along with the end of a certain amount of public/private distinction. There will be less private in general, so the voyeuristic thrill now attached to marginalia won’t matter as much

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sarah Werner, Richard Jones. Richard Jones said: RT @wynkenhimself NYT piece about marginalia ( and @theaporetic's response ( […]

  • Paul F. Gehl wrote:

    I’m one of the folks quoted in the Times article supposedly worrying the loss of our privileged but creepy access to the private thoughts of past readers. That headline was unfortunate, since it seems to have conditioned many readers of the article to find regret when none of the principals I know really feel any. More to your point, however, is that 18th- and 19th-century readers did not think of their marginal notes as entirely private any more than their letters were. Common practices were to read letters aloud and to read borrowed copies of annotated books, even for one reader to respond to the annotations of another by making further notes. This helps recover exactly the kind of discourse that interests cultural historians, or at least it can help. As for the creepy factor, well, there is plenty of published literature that would fit that characterization too. I wouldn’t want to exclude it from a library collection on that criterion.

  • Interesting stuff. I am remain unconvinced about the parallel you draw between looking through the closets of the living and the dead. Said differently, I think it may be a categorical error to talk about the dead having privacy. It would seem to me that concerns about privacy have to do with the potential to do harm to living people. With that said, you do right to point out that there are different places where it is relevant to scholarship.

    I wholeheartedly agree that our private thoughts and feelings are not more “real” or “true.” But it would seem that they are unequivocally an invaluable element to use in the triangulation of the past.

  • You’re probably right about privacy only pertaining to the living, in the same way that property only really pertains to the living. But calling attention to the way history invades the personal (which it didn’t really do when it was just public politics, before social history) also calls attention to the flimsiness of the humanist justification: it turns the dead into a material resource like coal or acres of timber, to be enlisted in a specific modern project, aimed at manufacturing a specific thing, like a “truth” about the lives of 19th century women which is derived from completely violating the terms of their lives as they lived them.

  • I think the point has already been somewhat made on Twitter, but I’ll just add that limiting evidence to what historical actors “chose” to leave behind would pretty much gut my research, which as you know is the most important thing in the world.

    The only way I could learn anything about servant cooks, for example, was to look inside the T Series of the Archives nationales, an enormous corpus of documents that’s precisely the opposite of something intentionally left behind. Instead it’s a massive collection of records seized from émigrés and the condemned during the French Revolution and as a result provides remarkable insight into everyday life since it includes the kinds of things that contemporaries (including contemporary archivists) didn’t generally consider worthy of preservation.

    So while I agree with you that it’s basically intellectually sterile (and necrophiliac?) star-fucking to brandish marginalia from famous dead people, extending the critique more generally to protect “privacy” would inexorably exclude the very kinds of topics and people that you and I write about, however indirectly.

  • Well there’s a difference of subject and question, isn’t there? If your subject is “what was the sex life of cooks like” or “how did cooks feel about liberte,” it’s different from something conceived as the discourse of cookery or the meaning of cuisine. Your subject isn’t cooks per se, it’s a formulation which spans public and private. The sort of thins I’m objecting to is the way in which the private is exhumed to prove or disprove or adorn the public.

    “insight into everyday life” is in itself a phrase worth examining. It kind of calls up the image of the neighbor with binoculars, gaining sight into the everyday life etc etc etc.

    Your enterprise is hopelessly corrupt. Have a nice day

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