The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Marginalia’

Today’s Defacement Is Tomorrow’s Artifact, and Other News

February 23, 2015 | by


Mark Twain’s annotations to translations by John Dryden. Photo via NYRB

  • The FBI kept a file on James Baldwin that ran to 1,884 pages. What was in it? Reasonably adept criticism, among other things: “The mixed bag of memos, letters, and clippings that composed the typical FBI author file included more than espionage reports … It also included outbursts of literary critical prose, a type of writing judgmental in nature, but always indebted to the prior writing it describes. FBI author files thus qualify as recognizable works of literary commentary, as state-subsidized assessments and interpretations quietly warring with those produced by English professors and less stuffy book reviewers.”
  • A new exhibition at the New York Society Library, “Readers Make Their Mark,” collected annotated books from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, thus continuing the culture’s growing fascination with marginalia. “Sometimes they are making proclamations about their own books: George Bernard Shaw identifies a printed text of his Too True to be Good as a ‘Provisional Prompt Copy’ for a particular production and calls it ‘Frightfully Private. No Press Agent to be let near it.’ And sometimes—as in the case of an early woman reader who judges the characters in Emma, one by one—they respond to their books in ways that still seem familiar.”
  • “Let’s get out of here” is one of the most common lines in film—people in movies just love to leave places. “It confers agency on whoever says it. It draws a line under what’s gone before. It propels action. It justifies a change of scene, no matter how abrupt.” But in more contemporary movies, “getting out of here” faces stiff competition from its longtime nemesis, “staying put.” “This emphasis on staying suits our times: The people writing and watching these movies are all part of an introspective, if not isolationist, culture that’s still licking its wounds after plotless wars and a traumatic recession.”
  • Is there anything more insufferable than our current predilection for all things twee? “Twee is a symptom of profound cultural exhaustion, a pop-cultural response to the death of grand narratives and radical politics: too weary to fight the corporate capitalist machine, the twee instead create hyper-stylized alternative worlds in which kittens play, ukuleles sound and childhood is eternal. Their basic disposition is melancholy rather than angry, and they will always opt for owl-print wallpaper over kicking against the pricks.”
  • I’ve always dreamed of winning an Oscar—I could put it up for auction, I thought, and make a lot of money, and that would be cool. But it turns out that selling your Oscar trophy is a great way to get sued by the Academy. In fact, the Academy thrills to a good lawsuit; they’ve also brought suits against “television shows that use the name ‘Oscar’ (i.e., ‘The Wine Oscars’); a website that predicts Oscar winners; and a chocolate-maker who produced Oscar-shaped candies.” Next up: people named Oscar, or people related to those people.

Bright Lights, Big City

February 2, 2015 | by


From the giveaway table.

I’ve mentioned my building’s giveaway table in this space before. If you’re clearing your bookshelves, you can leave just about any volume on the table and find it snapped up with gratifying alacrity. I’ve scavenged treasures aplenty there, and marveled at all manner of curiosities: The Kosher Cajun CookbookCelebrity Vineyards, Who’s Who in Dogs, a CD of music for kids called Oy Baby!, and The Winds of Fortune: the Memoirs of Guy de Rothschild. (Incidentally, if anyone is studying macroeconomics, there’s a pretty good line in used textbooks.) 

But over the weekend, I picked up something different. It’s an old Modern Library hardcover of War and Peace, the Constance Garnett translation. And there, on the flyleaf, is an inscription: Read More »

The World Just Wasn’t Ready, and Other News

December 11, 2014 | by

webvan mark coggins

Rest in peace, WebVan. Photo: Mark Coggins, via Flickr

  • Tim Parks was dismayed to find that his students were so enthralled by “the printed word and an aura of literariness” that they’d miss obvious absurdities in what they were reading. His advice? “Always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive. Put a question mark by everything you find suspect. Underline anything you really appreciate. Feel free to write ‘splendid,’ but also, ‘I don’t believe a word of it.’ And even ‘bullshit.’ ”
  • On a similar note, Oxonians are obsessed with finding marginalia in their library books: on Facebook, the Oxford University Marginalia group “now has two thousand five hundred and three members, making marginalia to Oxford something like what a cappella is to Princeton. ‘The Oxford libraries are still heavily used, and the curriculum remains relatively stable, so you have so many students reading the same texts’ … ‘The books are thrashed, basically.’ ”
  • Not many people are managing to slog through literary best sellers, experts say: “A study has shown the most downloaded ebooks of the year were not necessarily ever finished by hopeful readers.” Just 44 percent of readers made it through The Goldfinch, and 28 percent got through Twelve Years a Slave.
  • Crummy computer news, part one: they’re better at flirting than we are. “Women were okay, able to judge with 62 percent accuracy when a man was flirting with them. Men were worse, accurately guessing that a woman was flirting just 56 percent of the time. The Stanford guys’ flirtation-detection system, in comparison, was able to correctly judge flirting with 71 percent accuracy.”
  • Crummy computer news, part two: all the seemingly horrendous dot-com ideas of the nineties were actually pretty decent. Remember WebVan? No? They wanted to use the Internet to deliver fresh groceries to your door—just as dozens of profitable companies are doing today.


Another Bartleby, and Other News

October 23, 2014 | by


Constantin Meunier, Pays noire (Black Country—Borinage), ca. 1893, oil on canvas.

  • “On a winter’s day in 1482 a scholar had an embarrassing disaster, leaving a blood-red blot of ink on the pristine page of a valuable book. He then compounded his crime by confessing, adding a note in the same red ink still legible after 532 years. On the desecrated page of the Historiae Romanae Decades, printed in Venice in 1470, he wrote: ‘Ita macula’—this stain—‘I stupidly made on the first of December 1482.’ ”
  • On George Whitman, the eccentric founder of Shakespeare and Company: “He could be welcoming. He could be gruff. He could be charismatic. He could be aloof … This was, after all, a man who on occasion expressed himself by throwing books at people, sometimes affectionately, sometimes less so—a love-hate gesture, or so it sounds, not unlike Ignatz Mouse hurling bricks at an eternally besotted Krazy Kat.”
  • Novelists, here is your picaresque, contemporary Bartleby: an Italian coal miner who shirked work for thirty-five years and is now collecting his pension. “I invented everything—amnesia, pains, hemorrhoids, I used to lurch around as if I was drunk. I bumped my thumb on a wall and obviously you can’t work with a swollen thumb … Other times I would rub coal dust into my eyes. I just didn’t like the work—being a miner was not the job for me.”
  • Let’s trade fossil casts: “In the first part of the twentieth century, casts of fossil specimens were key to paleo sciences. Because actual fossils were too valuable and rare to ship to international researchers, casts of fossils circulated in their stead … Paleoanthropologists would offer to trade casts of ‘their’ fossils to other researchers in different areas of the world, who had different looking specimens—the casts became a social currency.”
  • In praise of reading plays: “A great published script makes you understand what the play is, at its heart. Not just what a certain production was like, though it also ought to do a good job of that. It makes you understand how the play feels as a living work of art—how it sounds and behaves inside your head, a mental effort that matters more in reading a play than in reading any other kind of literature.”


The Decline and Fall of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and Other News

July 17, 2014 | by


Kirsten Dunst, the original MPDG, in 2005’s Elizabethtown.

  • A new project, “The Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe,” catalogs and digitizes marginalia from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. “These notes reveal a largely unvarnished history of personal reading within the early modern historical moment. They also embody an active tradition of physically mapping and personalizing knowledge upon the printed page.”
  • How will Woody Allen’s latest film fare in light of the allegations leveled against him earlier this year? “Allen dismissed the possibility that lingering outrage could affect the public’s interest in Magic in the Moonlight. ‘No thoughts like that occur to me … They only occur to you guys,’ ” said Allen, who, as coincidence would have it, is referred to as a “major-league fantasist” elsewhere in this piece.
  • Nathan Rabin has apologized for inventing the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”: “I’m sorry for creating this unstoppable monster. Seven years after I typed that fateful phrase, I’d like to join Kazan and Green in calling for the death of the ‘Patriarchal Lie’ of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. I would welcome its erasure from public discourse.”
  • The art collector George Costakis devoted his life “to unearthing masterworks of the Russian avant-garde … but his enthusiasm met with obstacles: the difficulty of tracking down the works, the neglect they had suffered, the disbelief of widows (‘What do you see in them?’). In a dacha outside Moscow he found a Constructivist masterpiece being used to close up a window; the owner wouldn’t part with it. He dashed to the city to fetch a piece of plywood the same size, ferried it back to the dacha, and swapped it for the painting.”
  • The history of punk is, above all, the story of the traumatic loss of its elusive essence: that brief moment in time when a new sensibility was beginning to coalesce … Punk died as soon as it ceased being a cult with no name.”


From the Margins

January 23, 2014 | by


A rainbow-colored beast from the margins of a fifteenth-century text. Image via the Public Domain Review.

In college, I was excited to discover a student-produced, fly-by-night zine called “From the Margins.” I don’t know what’s more embarrassing: that I assumed it was devoted to marginalia or that I was seriously juiced about the idea. When I opened its creased, xeroxed pages, though, I found it was devoted not to literal margins but to my school’s “disenfranchised peoples,” most of whom struck me as too well-heeled to feel put out.

In any case, this month has granted my wish: it’s seen some great attention paid to margins, the kind on paper. Open Culture featured Dostoevsky’s manuscript doodles, which demonstrate not just his remarkable penmanship but also an affinity for faces and architecture. (The former, to no one’s surprise, are deeply melancholy.) The Public Domain Review resurfaced some rainbow-colored beasts “found in a book of hours attributed to an artist of the Ghent-Bruges school and dating from the late fifteenth century,” and Brain Pickings resurfaced a piece about Edgar Allan Poe, “history’s greatest champion of marginalia.” Poe is indeed unreserved in his praise; he also suggests, “If you wish to forget anything upon the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.”

Oh, that Poe! He’s a regular Mark Twain.

Last, Sam Anderson and David Rees have defaced, or, uh, annotated, a copy of Dan Brown’s Inferno, much to its benefit. There’s a lot of comfort in seeing—next to such atrocious lines of dialogue as “Don’t let her beauty fool you, she is a dangerous foe”—the red, hateful tendrils of a handwritten EAT SHIT.

It’s exactly the sort of thing I’d hoped to find in “From the Margins.”