Caterina fake’s annotated copy of ulysses / image by readmill

The Art of Writing in (e)Books

A conversation on the history and future of marginalia with Dr. Heather Jackson

The Readmill community has been writing in ebooks for over two years, and just last week, we brought conversation into the text of a book itself. Readers can now connect through their marginalia, allowing for a beautiful new way to read together from anywhere.

In celebration of this release, Dr. Heather Jackson, author of Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (Yale University Press), shares her perspective on the past and future of marginalia. Quotations below are excerpted from her book.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s friends knew about and encouraged his habit of writing comments in the margins of books. They lent him books of their own to comment on.

LS: You mention in your CBC Radio interview as well that some annotators were particularly sought after. What can digital annotators learn from these beloved annotators of print books?

HJ: That marginalia are a form of writing which, like other more familiar genres (gothic fiction, love poetry, newspaper articles), has its own standards and conventions or unwritten rules that evolve over time; and therefore that marginalia are susceptible of artistry. Some people are better at it than others. Taste, talent, discrimination, style, originality—all these qualities may be displayed and recognized in this medium as well as in others. We might think that marginalia are private and personal but the history of the form strongly suggests otherwise: people write notes in books for a purpose, and that purpose often includes being seen by other people, so there’s usually an element, largely unconscious, of showing off or trying to impress. If that sounds negative, say rather, of urgency, of trying to persuade someone else to share your point of view.

The celebrated annotators are celebrated for different reasons. It might be for the content of their notes (extraordinarily brilliant commentary and analysis, for instance), or for their wit, humour, or vivid character, or for some sort of distinctive flair. Recognition of their brilliance usually comes from their contemporaries and depends on current notions of best practice—which in turn depend upon the examples or models that are available at the time. Whatever great annotators emerge in the digital age, the qualities for which their writing is admired are not likely to be quite the same as those beloved annotators of the past, because the models they incorporate will have been different. (Modern digital annotators are unlikely to have been modelling their way of writing notes on Swift, Blake, Keats, etc.) I would expect digital annotation, for instance, to be more personal and more personally revealing than marginalia have normally been in the past, because of the example of social media.

Respond to other readers’ marginalia as you read. http://readmill.com
The frame of mind in which a reader can address a book as though it were another human subject, and present, is one we must all recognize.

LS: This conversational frame of mind must be at the heart of our emotional connection with books. It seems that another reader’s marginalia could either disrupt or enrich the intimate relationship between a reader and her book. How does annotation from another reader (or readers) transform the reading experience?

HJ: Depends on the parties involved and on their relationship with one another. (Are they personally acquainted, for instance? Are they keen to connect or wary of strangers, as in online dating? How many of them can there be? How long is this discussion going to stay open?) In books, there have always been some readers who preferred to keep the experience to themselves, and others who welcomed sharers—that’s a factor of personality. But with books the reader’s reaction to the writing (and by inference, to the writer) was always primary, and that may not continue to be the case. In the potentially limitless room of electronic media, I could imagine discussion very quickly moving away from the starting-point and becoming an end in itself. Much will hang on the way the system is set up in the first place, and then of course in the way that users try to make it work for them. I would expect digital readers taking sharing as a given, but would hope to see some way of keeping the starter text in view.

The vocabulary of conversation, friendly talk between equals, continues to be used of and by annotators, and although it is misleading in some ways, it reminds us that there are always at least two parties involved, the book and the reader, with some sort of give-and-take between them.

LS: Digital marginalia allows for a larger audience that also includes many other simultaneous readers, and in turn, the potential for real conversation. In your radio interview, you explain that writing in the margins on the web allows for greater interactivity—a reader can make his own mark on a text and share it easily with others. How might this expansion of audience influence the practice of writing in books?

HJ: I would say that modern digital readers will have no expectation of privacy—so the experience of reading will be psychologically somewhat different for them from what it has been in the past—and that they will look forward to participating in a group response, with subgroups, alliances, and hostilities (disagreements) probably emerging over time. But it has always been the case that once words are published (that is, put out there) the writer loses control over them and the group moves in to interpret as best it can, according to its own background and needs. The risk I foresee with digital “conversation” is that it will be too big and confusing. If readers feel overwhelmed they might eventually not want to participate, and go back to talking to themselves.

Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (Yale University Press)
Marginalia are untidy. Books are no longer designed to incorporate them (though the electronic book may change that)

LS: One of the most obvious differences between writing in the margins of print and digital books is the size of the margin. The “margins” of digital books do not necessarily have space limitations, and long conversations can unfold between readers. Do you think this will affect the poetics of marginalia?

HJ: Of course. But the conditions under which readers practice digital annotation will be limited in their own way by the programs that enable them to do it, just as readers of books were limited by the narrowness of margins. And some of them will probably figure out ways around the limitations, as Coleridge took to carrying his notes over from one page to the next, sometimes for many pages, until he had got out what he wanted to say.

LS: Do you have any advice for those just beginning to write in their (digital) books?

HJ: I was struck—guilt-stricken, actually—by a former undergraduate student of mine who told me that after reading my first book on marginalia she had seen the light and decided to write in her own books, but that she then found she could not bring herself to do it. She thought she had failed. But I think the reasons were that she had so internalized the prohibition against writing in books that it was impossible for her to break the taboo, and also that she had no good examples to follow. So I would advise: watch out for models that appeal to you; have a good reason for getting started.

When people write in books, they do it for some purpose and they have usually seen books marked up in the way they eventually do it. But readers typically develop a method of annotation that suits them only slowly, over time. If you are of an impatient disposition, the sort of person who never opens the manual before trying out a machine, you can just plunge in and learn by trial and error. If you are more reflective, you might want to figure out why you are planning to do this and what you expect to get out of it. Are you using notes to take in information, to express opinions, to correct a text or to make connections with other reading? Are you doing it so that some other reader will read as it were with you, understanding the book as you do? If you do that you will work more purposefully and effectively from the start. Both kinds of annotator are likely to find their practice changing, however, so perhaps it doesn’t matter which type you belong to.


Dr. Heather Jackson is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (Yale University Press), finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in literary criticism.