Writing That Is Of Marginal Interest

By Mike Feinsilber

So there I was happily reading Lynne Olson’s fascinating book, Those Angry Days, about the pre-World War II struggles between the isolationists who wanted to keep America out of the war and the internationalists who couldn’t stand America’s hands-off policy while Nazi bombers were pounding London night after night.

And there I came across a series of pencilled in comments in the book’s margins by a previous reader of the book, which I’d borrowed from the D.C. Public Library. “Dear Reader” is how I’ve come to think of Olson’s ghostly second guesser. And  I’ve come to think of Dear Reader as elderly and a woman because of her frail, thin, and tiny handwriting. Maybe that’s sexist. My evidence is thin.

On page 98, Olson mentions a spending spree by well-off Americans in 1940, noting that Tiffany’s hot seller was a pin that cost $900. Dear Reader commented, to put that in context, “A Ford cost $700-$800.”

On page 224, Olson notes that John F. Kennedy, while at Harvard, sent a check for $100 to the America First Committee, which was devoted to keeping the United States neutral. That, noted Dear Reader, would be equivalent to “$1500 today.”

Page 347 discusses the Churchill-Roosevelt meeting off the shore of Newfoundland and Dear Reader offers the names of the ships which brought them to their rendezvous.

And when Olson calls Iceland “a former Danish  territory,” Dear Reader scratches out “former” and notes Iceland was “self-governing (independent 1943).”

Sometimes Dear Reader’s comments are interesting but irrelevant. Olson wrote about the Reuben James, which was sunk by a Nazi submarine on October 31, 1941—five weeks before Pearl Harbor—while escorting ships carrying vital supplies to Britain. “The Reuben James,” pipes in Dear Reader, “was escort (to) the ship bringing the Unknown to be buried at Arlington in the early 1920s. There is another Reuben James in the U.S. Navy today.”

What Dear (and quite knowledgeable) Reader engaged in, I’ve subsequently learned, is known as generating “marginalia,” reader’s comments scribbled in the margins of books. It’s a term which Sam Anderson, the New York Times’ critic at large, once called “a self-consciously pompous Latinism intended to mock the triviality of the form.”

Some people hate the practice, considering it literary blasphemy. Others love tumbling across the thoughts of an earlier reader. Anderson says the English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge was “the undisputed all-time champion of marginalia,” whose friends begged him to mark up their books.  Five volumes of his marginalia have been published in books, into whose margins readers might—well, you know.

Some other known writers of marginalia were John Adams, Edgar Allan Poe, Graham Greene, Herman Melville, Sylvia Plath, and David Foster Wallace. The New Yorker has taken note of marginalia, even though its margins, you might notice, are too narrow to encourage it. Scholar H. J. Jackson has written a book about it, “Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books.”

The marginal comments of Mark Twain are esteemed among marginalia connoisseurs. His observations in the margins made one copy of an obscure book so valued that Chicago’s Newberry Library keeps it in a climate-controlled vault where security cameras keep an eye on its readers—lest, one presumes, they write in the margins.
Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.

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