Talking Back to Books
December 17 2016
Marginalia is how we talk back to books.
As a student at art college, I first remember coming across books that had little notes, highlighted paragraphs and even small drawings in them. Other people had made their mark by recording the connections to their own thoughts and ideas in the margins, and between the lines of the authors printed words.
It was shocking to me that a book could be treated in this way, but it made me realise that these pages were adding extra layers of meaning, connected to the original book. These individual books had there own stories to tell beyond the original intention of the author.
Reading Between the Lines
Tucked into the white space between and beside lines of text, Marginalia embellishes the pages of books with annotations, corrections, connections, additions, interactions, decorations, illustrations and often questions.
“In getting my books,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 1844, “I have always been solicitous of an ample margin; this is not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of penciling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”
Medieval scribes added them to illuminated manuscripts with intricate and symbolic pictures and patterns. Often, the scribes had fun by adding humorous and rude illustrations which were surprising given the subject of the books.
The Parchment is hairy, the ink is thin, thank God it will soon be dark!
Notes in Manuscripts and colophons made by medieval scribes and copyists
At different points throughout the history of paper, the medium has been so costly that publication was a great accomplishment and therefore other authors would sometimes write whole stories in the margins of a colleague's book just to be published in some way. The physical book tells us another story about its existence and the people that read, or used it - it has a life of its own.
Tom Phillips - Marginalia as an Artwork.
Artist, Tom Phillips set himself a challenge to alter every page of a second hand book which he bought for threepence in 1966. This developed into his life's work, and he has created fascinating artworks from each page that he has made using collage, painting and cut-up techniques. The book has a second life and a new story to tell.
A Human Document by W.H. Mallock, was originally published in 1892 and was transformed into what Phillips calls, The Humument. As with marginalia, the work embellishes both the original printed words and often the margins of each page. The old book remains ever present whilst the artists story and ideas are woven in, over and around Mallock's words.
Illustrating Music - People Too.
The Russian artist duo known as 'People Too' are well known for their paper craft online. In one of their projects they use old sheet music to draw illustrations on, creating a different kind of marginalia. These delightful illustrations show a variety of everyday activities including dinner and dancing, work and play which are full of life and energy.
Make your Mark, Have your Say. Be Heard.
Marginalia has been a very physical activity in that marks are made directly on an object - a book. But on the internet, people nearly always have the opportunity to make remarks, post images or share ideas within a post, article or blog. We can all contribute to the life of anything which is published on line.
The only difference is that we don't write or draw directly over a page, between lines or, in the margins. Also, this kind of 'marginalia' is not as aesthetic or visually expressive. But, it is about making those connections between author and reader, asking questions and solving problems.
Drawings help people to work out intricate relationships between parts.
Drawing and using a pen or pencil to make a mark seems to have a very direct connection to the way we can express ourselves as humans. Handling a brush with wet ink, applying pressure when shading with a pencil, crossing things out energetically, or the sound of a pen on paper. These have a profound connection to our body, senses and feelings. That is why notebooks, journals and a good pen are still really desirable tools to use today.
Whilst researching this blog post I came across Bible Journals. In these books you are given the opportunity to draw, write and make art in the margins and on the words of a specially designed Bible.
So, we go from medieval monks making humorous drawings in illuminated manuscripts to being encouraged today to using the act of making art to connect and reflect on the word of God. Sounds like fun!
More Interesting articles and information about marginalia:
BBC Radio programme about marginalia, here.
Article from the NewYorker, here.
20 Bizarre examples of Medieval marginalia here
7 Pieces Of Fascinating Marginalia From a forgery of William Shakespeare’s signature to a queen’s love note asking not to be beheaded. here