Marginalia and Ephemera

I just read a post on the I Love Typography site about shrinking margins. It made me think about marginalia and ephemera. Marginalia is the stuff that’s written in margins of text. Ephemera is basically the same, but it doesn’t have to be written into books – it can be notes on cocktail napkins or post-it notes, etc.

Even in grad school I was a reluctant book-writer-inner. I underlined enthusiastically, but I preferred to re-copy any pertinent quotes or thoughts and my own additional observations into notebooks. Naturally it makes me quite nervous to see my husband plunder my notebooks for blank pages for his own studies, but that’s another story. It’s a little bit ironic, because I do so love to find ephemera and marginalia in books, particularly the hand-written kind. A stamp isn’t as interesting to me, but little notes and especially the ever-exciting and exceedingly vague star or asterisk never fail to thrill.

I don’t know for certain where my reluctance to write in books comes from, but I can make an educated guess. I come from a very bookish house. My parents, however, view books and their provenance a little bit differently (from each other). My mother cherishes all books in all forms, and we do not write in books, nor dog ear them, nor remove pages, nor accidentally drop them in the bath. My dad values particular books – albums, photography books, coffee table books, hardcovers in general. After every business trip, however, as we’d perch around the perimeter of his suitcase breathing in that heady mix of plane diesel and cold leather waiting for our presents to emerge, we’d always see him remove the last tenth of a paperback. It was his practice to buy a book at the airport in the bookstore and read it throughout his trip. Before packing up for each leg, he’d tear out the portion he’d read and throw it away. To me, now, this is at least partially insane. But to him it was logical. He had minimal room and he’d already read it and had no plans to read it again. I often wonder still what the chamber maid(s) would have thought – if anything – to find these jettisoned book parts. Little synecdoches that have been cut adrift from their whole, lost to deciphering.

Anyway, I think I got it from my mother. And I think that the underlying forbidden aspect of writing in books is what makes it so thrilling for me to find handwritten notes in books now. If I find two of the same book in a resale shop, I’m getting the one with the handwritten dedication in the front.

When the babies were still hot off the press, so to speak, my husband became obsessed with Little Golden Books. He began comparing eBay lots of LGBs (not to be confused with LGBTs) in order to get the “best” combination of books. We ended up with something like 151 books. And while one seller removed any writing in the inside front cover, many did not. And it’s the sweetest thing ever to see the “this book belongs to” section filled in by a little one. I had book plates when I was little, and was very much all about writing my name in the front cover. I particularly like when the child didn’t appear to be old enough to write, and there’s just a scribble.

I can’t wait for my babies to want to take pencil to paper, and I can’t wait to see what they deem fitting for addition to their books.

See references:


2 responses to “Marginalia and Ephemera”

  1. I love marginalia. One of my books is actually my aunt’s Complete Works of Shakespeare, full of her notes in the margins. She passed away ages ago, but I still have the book and it’s great to open up a play and see her notes and highlights.

    Also a funny anecdote about book inscriptions: I once picked up a copy of Bonfire of the Vanities at a thrift store. The original book was a gift to someone and they had a lovely little gossipy piece about how they’d given another copy to a friend of their’s and speculating if that mutual friend would recognize himself in the characters.


    • Ahhh – hahaha I love it! I love how out-of-context most inscriptions are. You can only wonder. That one seems pretty self-explanatory, though!
      Side-note – I haven’t read Bonfire of the Vanities, but I have read The Painted Word and enjoyed the hell out of it. I need to put BotV on my list.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: