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Magic in the margins: what links Marlene Dietrich with Coleridge and Kerouac?

All were fans of writing their own thoughts on the pages of the books they read

Actress Marlene Dietrich (pictured c1942) was a committed annotator in her later years, particularly in biographies of herself. Photo: Corbis/Getty

This week I have been trying to act upon what has become an annual resolution of mine to read more poetry. Not the most arduous of life-transforming fresh starts I’ll admit, but hey, much cheaper than joining a gym.

I began this year’s effort by picking off the shelf a collection by the American poet Billy Collins, whose gentle ruminations on the quiet moments in life are the perfect way to slip back in to the world of verse; beautiful evocations of the overlooked spaces between the rattling bustle of everyday life.

Supine on the sofa with the last of the Quality Street within reach, I was flicking through his 2001 collection Sailing Alone Around the Room when I came across an old favourite.

Marginalia is classic Collins, turning a subject as apparently trivial as readers scribbling in the margins of books into something nuanced and philosophical, talking of how “we have all seized the white perimeter as our own/ and reached for a pen if only to show/ we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;/ we pressed a thought into the wayside,/ planted an impression along the verge”.

I have a mixed relationship with the act of writing in books. Brought up to believe books are objects to be treasured, I have generally refrained from adding my own scrawl to those that end up in my orbit. Especially since my mum once brought home half a dozen Doctor Who annuals from the William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton eras she spotted in a bargain bin outside a junk shop and – look away now, Whovians – I took out my felt-tip pens and drew all over them. I still wince about that. Especially when thinking about my overdraft.

I am much better behaved these days and rarely feel the urge to add my scribble to books. If I’m sent a proof copy to review I might make a few notes inside the back cover but even then it’s in pencil, an optimistic part of me still believing that one day I’ll go back and rub them all out. The thought of writing in the “proper” version of a book, paperback or hardback, gives me both heebies and jeebies.

Yet while writing on books is not something I would indulge in myself, one of the great pleasures of taking custody of pre-owned volumes is occasionally stumbling across the annotations of their previous owners.

I have a very old copy of a pocket edition of Dr Johnson’s dictionary published in 1822 which, according to the inscription inside the cover, was owned in 1833 by one Eliza Wallis of Salford who, as well as her name and the date, added some words by George Herbert: “Let thy mind’s sweetness have its operation, upon thy person, clothes, and habitation”. Best of all, though, inside the dictionary she has underlined the entry for “love” and inked a tiny doodle of a flower in the margin.

As a student, I once consulted an ancient library copy of George Meredith’s 1879 novel The Egoist, which contains in its early pages a long-winded meditation on the protagonist’s leg. A previous reader had written on the title page: “I have tried several times to read this book because I thought I ought to but I can’t for the life of me get past Sir Willoughby’s leg”. Underneath, in a different hand, someone had added “Amen”.

Arguably the most fascinating examples of marginalia are those left in copies of books that once belonged to famous writers or celebrities. I once briefly owned a volume of essays by Hilaire Belloc that had belonged to Rupert Brooke. As well as the poet’s name in his own hand on the flyleaf, in the margin of a page towards the back was a series of handwritten numbers that I deduced were train times copied from a railway timetable, scribbled perhaps on a platform somewhere with a steaming locomotive about to depart and the Belloc the only writing surface available.

Marlene Dietrich in her later years was a committed annotator. She spent most of her dotage in bed in her Paris apartment accompanied by a hotplate, a telephone, whisky and a pile of books (while lamented as a sad demise by most biographers, this sounds very appealing to me). One of her favourite hobbies was reading biographies of herself in which she would write “lies”, “never happened” and similar condemnations in the margins along with fierce underlining in red pen and forests of exclamation marks.

She would not just vent her displeasure on the pages of her own story, either. Her copy of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers is almost pristine other than, next to the book’s opening sentence “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me” she has written “This is where I stopped reading”.

Sometimes even the briefest of literary marginalia by noted writers can be revealing. In 1949 Jack Kerouac borrowed Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers from the New York Public Library and never returned it. After his death it was found among his belongings where on page 227 he had underlined in pencil and put a tick in the margin next to the sentence “The traveller must be born again on the road”.

Dietrich and Kerouac were mere dabblers compared to the most committed book annotator of all time, however: Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

“There is no body of marginalia – in English, or perhaps in any other language – comparable with Coleridge’s in range and variety and in the sensitiveness, scope, and depth of his reaction to what he was reading,” wrote the scholar George Whalley of a man whose marginal scribblings were so extensive that no less than six volumes of his Collected Works are given over to them.

Coleridge’s marginalia range from the genuinely scholarly with allusions to the classics to thoughtful rumination (responding to an author’s assertion that all dancing is “an allegory of sexual love,” Coleridge writes: “Against this reasoning I protest. In England at least, our young Ladies think as little of the Dances representing the moods and manoeuvres of Sexual Passion as of the Man-in-the-Moon’s whiskers”) to the self-deprecating aside: next to lines from a poem he composed with Robert Southey he confesses: “Hang me, if I know or ever did know the meaning of them”.

It was Southey who helped preserve Coleridge’s marginalia, writing over the fading pencilled handwriting in ink, aware of their possible future significance. Indeed, as the poet’s fame grew during his lifetime, friends and acquaintances would lend him books purely because they hoped the volume would be returned enhanced by some impassioned Coleridgian scribbling.

Yet even then, back at the turn of the 19th century, Coleridge was following an established literary tradition of scribbling in the margins.

In medieval times books were rare things handwritten by scribes, usually religious tracts. Monks would sit for long hours every day on high stools in scriptoria – rooms set aside for the purpose – carefully writing out bible passages, collections of prayers and hymns. Many volumes are decorated beautifully with illustrations and lettering illuminated by inks of bright colours, the best preserved practically as vivid today as the day they were inscribed.

Inevitably the deep concentration and meticulous monotony involved would prompt the odd doodle or aside in a margin, inked relics that lend a hint of insight into the human being holding the pen.

In a ninth-century copy of the Latin grammar reference Institutiones grammaticae made by Irish monks in Switzerland, for example, written in Latin in the margin of one page are the words “A hedge of trees surrounds me: a blackbird’s lay sings to me – praise which I will not hide – above my booklet, the lined one, the trilling of the birds sings to me. In the grey mantle the beautiful chant sings to me from the top of the bushes: may the Lord protect me from Doom. I write under the greenwood”.

At the bottom of the next page, also in Latin and in the same – but slightly shakier – hand, is the phrase “enormous hangover”.

As Billy Collins puts it in Marginalia, these scribes were “anonymous men catching a ride into the future/ on a vessel more lasting than themselves”.

Perhaps the most evocative example is found in a ninth-century book by Irish monks now kept in Austria. Alongside a transcription of a letter from St Paul, the anonymous writer has left us a short poem in Irish dedicated to his cat, Pangur Bán.

“I and Pangur Bán, my cat/ ’Tis a like task we are at;/ Hunting mice is his delight,/ Hunting words I sit all night,”, it begins, ending with the beautiful couplets, “Practice every day has made/ Pangur perfect in his trade;/ I get wisdom day and night,/ Turning Darkness into light”.

It is only in recent years that readers scribbling their thoughts in printed books has become frowned upon, an act once so commonplace as to be almost expected. Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 1844 of how “in getting my books 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 pencilling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general”.

I, however, am far too set in my ways to consider recording my reactions on the pages of volumes other than proofs that are destined for the recycling bin anyway. Not least because the Doctor Who community now has a bounty on my head.

Instead, I shall continue to enjoy my marginalia through the chance discoveries of those left by readers who came before me. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll find something as beautiful as the example with which Billy Collins finishes Marginalia. Recalling a copy of The Catcher in the Rye once borrowed from his local library he describes finding on one page:

a few greasy looking smears

and next to them, written in soft pencil –

by a beautiful girl, I could tell,

whom I would never meet –

“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

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