Twain the Critic

April 21, 2010 at 12:10 am 7 comments

The man, the legend -- the secret margin-writer!

Did you see this article in The New York Times? Recently, the staff at the Times was allowed to view a collection of books from Mark Twain’s personal library, in honor of the centennial of Twain’s death.

Twain (or Clemens, I suppose) was apparently an irrepressible critic of everything he read. He wrote all over everything, even adding words to Robert Browning’s poems to make them flow better. The Times has posted a selection of some of the more interesting inscriptions and marginalia here, on their website.

This got me to thinking about marginalia in general, though, especially after having read Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris not long ago. Clemens was clearly a carnal lover of books, displaying his love for words and reading by interacting with his texts via pencil (a show of respect, considering he could have used a far more damaging pen!). It’s stunning to think that his offhand comments could be studied so closely and be of such interest over a century later.

Tell us your opinions on marginalia! Do you write in your books? Pen or pencil? Do you write comments for yourself, or to some vague future reader? Let us know in the comments!

– KT


Entry filed under: Musings and Essays. Tags: , , , , .

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Iris  |  April 21, 2010 at 2:12 am

    “even adding words to Robert Browning’s poems to make them flow better.” That sounds horribly mean!

    I don’t generally make notes when reading, well not in the book anyway. I wish I was a more fervent note taker on reading in general, I like the thought of it, but I always feel it might interrupt the flow of the story. And so I try to remember the memorable passages, but usually end up forgetting them.

  • 2. Natalie  |  April 21, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Writing in books…I shudder at the thought! Ever since I was very young, I have always tried to keep my books in pristine condition (spine creases are ok; dog-eared pages are most assuredly not). I had a couple of class assignments for which we were told to write in the margins and I still couldn’t bear it. I actually took notes in a notebook with page and line numbers listed.

    I am fairly obsessive about the condition of most of my belongings, so not writing in books is really just an extension of that. Additionally, though, books are sacred and I can’t bear to sully them with my scribbles.

  • 3. Corey  |  April 22, 2010 at 8:40 am

    I’m definitely a courtly lover of books, as Fadiman would have it. I really can’t bear to write in the margins. (Particularly after an embarrassing look into the margins of my freshman year copy of Romeo and Juliet. Did that really have to be preserved for posterity, 14-year-old-me? Really?)

    That said, if a particular quote or passage moves me, I may occasionally underline it. It still feels a little intrusive, though!

    • 4. KT  |  April 26, 2010 at 5:58 pm

      Hence the pencil, buddy! My copy of Bright Lights Big City is covered in pen — misguided, but at least with pencil I could have erased! Now “imagery” is written on fully 1/4 of the pages of one of my favorite books :(

  • 5. Aishwarya  |  April 23, 2010 at 4:18 am

    I once discovered a library book* where there was an actual conversation going on in the margins – people had replied to other people’s comments, and other people had replied to those, and so on. Best book ever.

    I rarely write, though I post-it with abandon, but I’m definitely more of a carnal reader than a courtly one. Dog ears, rolling on top of, etc. I suspect the only reason I don’t write more in my books is that I’m too restless!

    *I disapprove on principle of people writing on library books, of course

    • 6. Corey  |  April 23, 2010 at 5:13 am

      Okay, that does sound completely excellent! If there was ever a reason to write in a library book, that’s definitely it!

  • 7. Care  |  April 26, 2010 at 7:51 am

    I just bookmooched a book that has tiny fine pencil writings in the margins and I’m delighted! But no, I don’t do this. Well – not true, I used to highlight and write like crazy in textbooks. But those days are long ago. I sometimes do a tiny dot next to a line I hope to come back to – but I write the page number in my notebook.


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