In The Margins

As any good reader will know, the art of the instinctive scribble cannot be restrained or planned. To deface the undoubtedly limited supply of glorious print texts is, for a bibliophile, sin. Yet it is within this sin that the texts of Oxford are awash. Indeed, some would argue that this instant scribble is a text in itself. For the literary critic, the amateur philosopher, and the translator, the pencil marks that fill margins mark the genesis of later works, which will, undoubtedly, soon spawn the scribbles of a new generation of readers. Where this may not be the case in all the defacements recorded, with “fuck you”, “you loser” and “good”, frequenting the pages of many well-established works, it is the ethos behind these words that counts.

The OED takes “marginalia” to mean “notes, commentary and similar material written or printed in the margin of a book or manuscript…incidental or additional to the main topic”. Yet in the understanding we have today, and certainly the understanding perpetrated by the Facebook group, ‘Oxford University Marginalia’, the concept is so much more. Marginalia has turned from a side comment into a dialogue, perhaps even a conversation, or an art. Photographs uploaded to the group feature everything from a misplaced exclamation point, to lists of comments, with the pens and handwriting styles undoubtedly spanning a range of people and years. One recorded piece of marginalia could even be seen as a memorial of sorts, with a squashed insect deftly labelled by an arrow alongside the etching ‘R.I.P 1994’, the sly virtual caption reads, “Gone but not forgotten”.  Further uses of Marginalia can be seen in corrections, chidings, and, of course, the essential base humour of any promising undergraduate, with such expressions as “wanking” and “sweeping statement of wank” frequenting records of the aisle between the spine and text.

These self-conscious scribbles are an art form in themselves, yet what does this leave us to say about the form in which we receive them? For the frequenter of the library, there is no doubt that their original interactive format proves a thought in progress, a sort of experimental, interactive art, perhaps even an installation. As this reader cramps together their thoughts in the corner of the Radcliffe Camera, there is no reason why they, like countless others before them, have totake pen in hand to simultaneously deface and contribute to the quality of the text. Yet, as with all virtual endeavours, for the shady Facebooker, these marginal amendments are confined to frozen pixels.. Indeed the very angle of the picture, the artfulness of the photographer, and the blurriness off the text, are all new factors in evaluating the contribution. In some cases, the perspective of the shifting camera lens slips the end of the word or phrase, quite literally casting text into beyond the margin.

The shift of perspectives through which each comment is filtered, is, if anything, illuminated by the use of the online medium. Coming to write this article, I realise that I am now commenting on someone else’s thoughts (Facebook comments and captions), on a third person’s selection (limited presentation or choice of the part of text and part of comment), on someone else’s (the ‘author’ of said ‘marginalia’) comment, on the actual text, which, more frequently than not, is indeed what we might call a secondary text, as a criticism or evaluation of the work of others. Some members of the undergraduate body may colloquially, and in this case accurately, label this layering “meta”. This idea seems even more significant when under the glaring light of the virtual world. Over summer The New Yorker explored the phenomenon of marginalia, explicitly mentioning the Oxford-born Facebook group. It becomes clear that the virtual social platform of places such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr, offer a margin in themselves, a blank space on the side of everything in which to flirt with and record new ideas. The speed with which Facebook allows us to gratify a thought or argument is arguably the same speed with which the persistent reader marks his page.

In his poem “Marginalia”, Billy Collins writes that ‘We have all seized the white perimeter as our own’, perhaps suggesting that there is something in the notion of space left unclaimed that appeals to the mind, a form of academic territorialism, a war of words over already published space. The white perimeter marks our blank thought, the non-thought of the writer. In this blank space there is a regulation, a format, a form. Here, text is forced to adhere to publishing, to the shaping and spacing of a mind dependent from its author. In filling this we reclaim the apparent finite nature of print, melting it and recasting it according to our own thoughts, according to the journey of the physical text itself, with mental and academic repercussions, juxtapositions and more. With this in mind, we are left with the metaphorical echoes of Pierre de Fermat’s most famous scribble upon a discovery of a marvellous truth, that being that in his instance, and perhaps in all of our instances, ‘the margin is too narrow to contain’.

Photo Credit: Carys Louisa Williams