Marginalia Code

I’m not against eBooks or technology. In may ways they are preferable to bits of paper and cardboard. I remember thinking this the last time I moved, for instance. However, there are benefits to physical books for writers.

One of my favourite second-hand book stores is cosy and full of interesting texts, but it does something I don’t agree with. Finding no reason in particular to visit, I walked in to witness the proprietor assiduously erasing every pencilled and inked hand written note on every page of the pile of books in front of him. No! I shouted…in my head as I drifted, now forlorn, through each full room of tomes empty of notes left by former owners.

Ancient guild of bookbinders, writers and readers sending the eraser of marginalia to prison.

Ancient guild of bookbinders, writers & readers sending the eraser of marginalia to prison.

Finding an insightful musing, helpful notation or personal aside in a second-hand book is one of the joys of second-hand book buying. It’s an alternate, or additional history. It adds to the life of the book as an object. You just have to see ancient manuscripts with cat prints on them to know that. How come this book purveyor didn’t know?

More importantly, it helps me play a game.

Find a book, find the marginalia, or even items left in the book. String them together from other books, shuffle them, and write a story. I once found an epic passive aggressive note from a mother to her son who wanted to borrow some money. That stuff is gold.



If you do no erase hand written notes from books, you are safe from ghosts. #truefact

To be safe from the ghosts of note writers past, leave their hand written book notes alone. 

Another second-hand book shop, closer to home, doesn’t erase marginalia, but it’s so packed if you take one book, you risk concussion from falling stacks. There are darkened rooms and nooks so full of books no one can venture in. Every time I visit, I feel like I’m not buying a book, but liberating it from a claustrophobic and labyrinthine fire risk nightmare. Upon last visit, I’ve noted it’s improved, and I can now see some of the floor. Reflecting on this visit, I realised the books are not in some prison, but are communing together, in run-on sentences across titles, crossing continents and ages and subjects, mixing themselves up, eternally, making meaning. Until some poor reader happens upon a text they want and interrupt the conversation. The buyers are the breaks in the code.

A bit like the universe, the marginalia code is forever, and readable too.

Like the universe, the marginalia code is forever, & readable. Possibly I’ve read too much Borges. 

The most interesting sources of books are the charity stores. Full of videos, naff 80s art, unidentifiable obsolete kitchen doodads, and the peculiar odour of discarded clothes, often book sections contain finds the volunteers don’t know the value of. I found a mint condition Maurice Sendak illustrated fairy tale book for a dollar. Another benefit: they virtually give away unloved texts I can up-cycle into a new life in art projects.

All of these places, and the books they contain, fuel creativity. For writers, they are worth a wander…because may be we marginalised few are just lines of code shuffled typed on yellowing, musky pages, arranged randomly on groaning shelves, waiting to fall, or to find, the right end.

3 thoughts on “Marginalia Code

  1. Wonderful blog, Bec and I couldn’t agree more. I love marginalia in old books (and inscriptions). I adore knowing what a post reader thought worth underlining and annotating and what the context might have been. I too have liberated books from hoarder-like second hand book shops (which I also love), but never thought I was interrupting, no! Destroying a subliminal conversation – what a fantastic notion! So enjoyed reading this as I do all your posts. Karen X

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