Book scribbles reveal public, private histories

January 20, 2004

The act of writing in the margins of books - which today is generally considered vandalism - was accepted as a privilege of ownership in the 18th and early 19th centuries, says a University of Toronto English professor.

"No one really gave it a second thought and more often than not it was considered a good thing," says Heather Jackson in Romantic Readers: The Witness of Marginalia. "It made the books more valuable and it was actually seen as an attractive option for readers to add to a book by writing inside it."

In this, her second volume of research studying marginalia, Jackson examines ordinary everyday scribbles as well as such famous cases as Blake, Coleridge and Keats. One well-educated widow of a brewer in the 1790s wrote extensively in books for the benefit of her friends. She filled her own volumes with educated notes that were connected with the text.

The seemingly simple act of reading these marginalia helps us understand other times much better, Jackson says. "Quite often it reveals information we wouldn't acquire anywhere else. If you look at a lot of these marked-up books, you get a sense of a collective mentality. Reading them, you are learning something about the way people thought about books, about the act of reading and about themselves. They didn't think of themselves as consumers but as collaborators."
Jackson's book was funded in part by grants from the Killam Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Professor Heather Jackson
Department of English

Michah Rynor
U of T Public Affairs

University of Toronto

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