As an undergraduate, I was prone to wandering the university library, looking to some kind of literary distraction from whatever math assignment I was suffering to complete. One day pulled a worn paperback copy of Sexual Politics by Kate Millett off the shelf. It was not a book I had ever been assigned or recommended. I had no understanding or conception of what it might contain, aside from the vague possibility of feminism. But the title seemed provocative enough, so I read a few pages to get a sense. It was polemical and read like a response to an ongoing conversation that I was not party to. There was an account of the notorious and horrifying evening when Norman Mailer stabbed his then wife with a penknife. But as horrifying as that was to read, I had no idea who Norman Mailer was. (I later discovered that I had read maybe fifty pages of his biography of Lee Harvey Oswald while in high school before discarding it; I had been hoping for conspiratorial speculation).
What did capture my imagination, was the marginalia on the opening page of the text. As I recall, someone had taken issue with the author’s use of the default male pronoun, as if that was enough to discredit and undermine the integrity of all that followed. I did not get the impression that this was done from a viewpoint sympathetic to feminism, and was a very bold assertion to make so early on in the reading. This is what scholars term “hostile” marginalia.
From this initial salvo followed a whole chain of pencilled and biro-ed interjections and objections from subsequent readers, although who knows how much further than the opening paragraphs any of them made it through the text. In content alone, this was little better than the below-the-line comments that have become ubiquitous online. And to be fair, much worse than most of what in the tech space is called user generated content. But it felt fun and exciting to read for a few obvious reasons. The first being the irreverence of writing in the book itself. The second being the simple aesthetic appeal of seeing the back and forth written out in people’s own hand.
Much has been written about marginalia and its virtues. The rise of the e-reader was occasion for much thinking about what might be lost in a transition to digital. Sam Anderson, who has written much on the subject, writes here from the point of view of a practitioner (as opposed to my own as the voyeur):
One day in college I was trawling the library for a good book to read when I found a book called “How to Read a Book.” I tried to read it, but must have been doing something wrong, because it struck me as old-fashioned and dull, and I could get through only a tiny chunk of it. That chunk, however, contained a statement that changed my reading life forever. The author argued that you didn’t truly own a book (spiritually, intellectually) until you had marked it up.
This hit home for me — it spoke to the little scribal monk who lives deep in the scriptorium of my soul — and I quickly adopted the habit of marginalia: underlining memorable lines, writing keywords in blank spaces, jotting important page numbers inside of back covers.
[…] Soon my little habit progressed into a full-on dependency. My markings grew more elaborate — I made stars, circles, checks, brackets, parentheses, boxes, dots and lines (straight, curved and jagged). I noted intra- and extratextual references; I measured cadences with stress marks. Texts that really grabbed me got full-blown essays (sideways, upside-down, diagonal) in the margins. I basically destroyed my favorite books with the pure logorrheic force of my excitement, spraying them so densely with scribbled insight that the markings almost ceased to have meaning. Today I rarely read anything — book, magazine, newspaper — without a writing instrument in hand. Books have become my journals, my critical notebooks, my creative outlets. Writing in them is the closest I come to regular meditation; marginalia is — no exaggeration — possibly the most pleasurable thing I do on a daily basis.
This belongs to a genre of advocacy for marginalia: looking to transforming passive readers into pencil wielding intellectuals deploying their critical judgements, droll asides, and tasteful underlinings. A closely related genre is more in my own voyeuristic camp, inspecting the great marginalia of the past. To my mind, the most significant marginalia lies in scientific discourse. An example: the journalist Arthur Koestler once dismissively referred to Copernicus’ On The Revolution as “the book that nobody read”, in his history of cosmology. In response Owen Gingrich titled a book with the offending quote as the title, in which he described his efforts to examine all surviving copies of On The Revolution from the 16th century. In the margins of these copies he found copious evidence that Copernicus’ opus was read very carefully indeed. Indeed, if you were to break into the offices of likely any practicing mathematician you will find preprints, with very wide margins, covered in scribbles testifying to the continuing engagement with tricky mathematical texts.
Back in the literary sphere the current king of marginalia has to be David Foster Wallace. While his posthumous reputation as a secular saint has been shattered, Infinite Jest continues to attract devoted readers. His personal library has entered the collection of the Ransom Center, and we’ve all been able to peer at the scans of the paperbacks he extensively and idiosyncratically annotated. More than anything else, these particular images illustrate else the purely aesthetic and textural appeal of marginalia.
But all of this commentary, to my mind, hasn’t acknowledged a more obvious truth about reader engagement with the printed word. Engagement is not always welcome, wanted, or virtuous. We do not tickled by the puerile and often hateful graffiti to be found in any high school textbook in the same way we are when we discover DFW added galsses, fangs, and a mustache to DeLillo’s author photo. Nor do we treat the posts of an unmasked sock puppet account as being worthy of the same respect as the abuse that the “great artist” leaves in the margins of their private library.
The digital age has transformed marginalia into a public performance, and if you abandon the fixation on the codex itself (to my money, still a robust and preferable reading technology) you can find much engagement and innovation, but frequently not among the artists we admire, valorize, and maybe aspire to.
“Fisking” is the practice of taking a text that you find particularly egregious and writing a rebuttal by quoting the text, likely in its entirety interspersed in-line with your debunking, criticism, and abuse. It takes its name from the British journalist whose reports from the Middle East were an early and frequent target of the conservative bloggers who pioneered this innovation. Whatever its roots, it is the logical digital evolution of hostile marginalia. What shifted the paradigm was the ability to instantly copy, paste, and then start writing the commentary. It’s the kind of thing that happens when there are no editors around and your audience seems to appreciate open insults.
The term still gets used, but mostly in conservative circles. There used to be a Wikipedia page that subsequently got removed. Fisk’s Wikipedia page used to mention it, but no longer. There is a dictionary definition, at least. Fisking does not have the same champions as marginalia. Nor the same caliber of practitioner. It also has to be said that the people who coined the term may not have appreciated all the possible associations the term might conjure.
Pile ons, ratios, and dunkings are nothing more than hostile marginalia done in public, en mass. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, and certain things are better done in the privacy of one’s own home. Editors offer a valuable service, and writing is often the process of working out what you think, rather than just responding in the moment. What can be an exciting insight into someones inner life — their unfiltered response as they read a novel — maybe shouldn’t become a model for public discourse. What made those glimpses so interesting, was how fleeting and how precious they could be. And let’s not over-think the thrill of seeing what a writer’s actual handwriting was like.