February 25, 2015

Marginalia from Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, and others on display at the New York Society Library


Many summers ago, in a tiny used bookstore in Georgetown (maybe it was this one?) I came across an old copy of Joan Didion’s After Henry that had that eccentric tall-and-skinny early-90s trim size and bore an inscription that’s haunted me ever since:

After Henry 2

It felt so intimate and devastating; I imagined this book to be an offering of peace after a terrific romance had gone sour. I bristled at Sarah’s ruthlessness in just giving the thing away.

It turns out that I’m not alone in my sentimentality—or at least not in my interest in the inscriptions and annotations that make their way into the books we pass around.

Earlier this month, the New York Society Library opened “Readers Make Their Mark,” an exhibition of several centuries’ worth of annotated books in which “you can see readers writing in books of every kind, for every imaginable reason.” Among the library’s very impressive collection are Mark Twain’s flip comments in a translation of Plutarch’s Lives, an anonymous contemporary annotation of the first American edition of Jane Austen’s Emma, and a copy of Willa Cather’s April Twilight and Other Poems, filled with the reader’s memories of conversations she shared with the author.

This exhibition follows a wave of renewed interest in the preservation of marginalia. As the New Yorker reported earlier this winter, the Oxford University Marginalia group, founded in 2012, now boasts 2,503 members and a collection that ranges “from profane (‘wanker’) to droll (‘Oh, the ’80s’)” and includes notes that “degenerate into an off-the-field brawl. ‘God, the Scots are such a dull and dour lot,’ a reader wrote in an essay about the Hundred Years’ War, to which a late borrower replied, in lovely cursive, ‘Fuck off, cunt.’”

For more invective, rage, and revelation, visit the New York Society Library’s “Readers Make Their Mark,” which will be open through August, 2015.


Taylor Sperry is an editor at Melville House.