On Marginalia

A version of this article appeared originally in the Et Cetera, Regent College’s student newspaper, on September 11, 2018.

One of the first in-depth conversations I had with my fellow students at Regent College was about writing in books. To my surprise, I found that I was one of only two people at the table who actually did it. Everyone else was against the practice. “It won’t let you read anything fresh,” they said. “You need to see things with a new insight.”

I used to be like them, a person who preferred my books completely without signs of use. Unscuffed edges, unbanged corners, and pure, clean pages where the only ink came from the printers’ rollers. Straight, justified text running from one side to the other leaving a healthy enough margin for white space.

I can’t tell you when I transformed into the monster I am now, who longs to rampage over the countryside of words leaving in my wake the violent aftermath of underlines, thoughts, quotes from other writers, Bible passages, and philosophical observations. I long to do these things, though what I’m reading doesn’t always lend itself well to being commented upon. It’s either dull rubbish or already so perfectly concise that it’s difficult to add anything to the mix without simply making noise.

Like I said, I can’t tell you when my metamorphosis took place, or even precisely why. For some reason, marginalia began to look beautiful. Or rather, it had always looked beautiful and I simply didn’t think myself intelligent enough to make some of my own. Marginalia has long been a staple of great thinkers, appearing as far in the past as the edges of scrolls in ancient libraries. Right on the margins of human history. That looks like a thing for smart people, I lied to myself, and it’s too bad I have such a hangup about keeping books clean or else I’d look smart too. I tried occasionally; hesitant, meaningless jottings.

I can, however, pinpoint the book where I first let myself go full force. And appropriately it was a book about Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of English literature’s most prolific and celebrated margin-markers; his marginalia have even been published in multiple volumes of their own.

The book I read and marked was Malcolm Guite’s Mariner, part biography and part close reading of “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner”, which brilliantly illuminates the Christian underpinnings of that haunting and redemptive tale. Intending to review the book for this blog, I decided I would start jotting down my reactions to help me find important passages and ideas to mention. Instead I became absorbed in those very ideas and began making connections between them and other ideas about poetry, imagination, and theology.

Were you to flip through the book today, it probably wouldn’t seem as densely annotated, except in parts and especially towards the end. But Mariner has suffered the horrors of my delinquent pen more than most of the volumes on my shelves, and I’ve turned out to be very glad it has. As I prepared this term to study creative Christian writers and poets during my time at Regent, I leafed through my copy of Mariner to see if anything would be useful to dialogue with. But I found more interlocuters than I’ve bargained for. I found myself.

A particular example. Coleridge, as Guite points out, was forever scribbling in notebooks (as well as books other people had written). On page 284, Guite quotes an especially important entry as Coleridge watches the moon rise one night in April 1805:

In looking at objects of Nature, while I am thinking, as at yonder moon dim-glimmering thro’ the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking, a symbolic language for something within me that already and for ever exists […] It is still interesting as a Word, a Symbol! It is Logos, the Creator! [and the Evolver!]

I underlined the last line of the paragraph and wrote a question beside it: “What did the word ‘Evolver’ mean to STC?” It was immediately the most intriguing thing to me, that he addressed God as both Creator and Evolver, a term far from common today. And knowing that Coleridge lived before Charles Darwin popularized and theorized about the evolution of life, I wondered what the word might have signified to this Christian poet.

I presumably checked an etymological dictionary, and in the blank space on the last page of the chapter I answered my own question and interacted with some of the things Guite and Coleridge were talking about.

“Evolve” in the pre-Darwin sense meant “to unfold, open out, expand” from the Latin evolvere “to unroll, roll out” (especially scrolls). As Coleridge wrote his note, we might say, his mind expanded and new possibilities emerged in his thought. God is both “Creator and Evolver” because He also reveals Himself to and within His Creation; He unfolds the truth and expands knowledge and wisdom. He unrolls the scroll, opens the book, grows His Creation. And by this revelation He transforms; revelation leads to transformation. No wonder this was Coleridge’s turning point.

What had obviously been a moment of insight for me when I first read the book led to a further insight now as I examined it anew. I’d been looking for some new and fresh insight. What I found was even better: something old that still had power, that was still trying to teach me and evolve my own understanding. And what’s more, something that spoke to other ideas and books I’ve read since that time, gathering themselves together and coalescing into what could be an Idea far larger than I had imagined when I scribbled in the margins of a book, an irritant burrowing into my brain and begging for the nacre that will turn it into a pearl of wisdom.

I wanted to be taught by Malcolm Guite and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But through my marginalia I became one of my own teachers, standing in their midst, throwing myself a line to reel me into a larger and more interesting world.

Write in your books. It isn’t about looking smart or being right or even being timeless. Our marginalia are evidence of active, critical thinking with what we read and receive. They can be the cup by which we drink deep of another’s philosophy. They are better than the fresh insight; they are experienced guides who will take us deeper down roads we had forgotten. And while the book’s native ink seems more permanent and professional, ours is no less valid — rough and rampaging and messy as it might look. It can teach us more than we might be willing to admit.

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