If you love something, set it free

I am a supporter of marginalia. Written works do not exist in a vacuum: society will always surround anything that we write, and by publishing something once and expecting it to never change is a good way to ensure that it fades from people’s interests very quickly. Our thoughts are never the same one moment to the next, so why should we expect our written work to stay stagnant? School textbooks release new editions every year or every few years for this very reason; information is always changing, adapting, and updating, and there is no reason that we should have to keep learning old information. Being open to the idea of readers commenting on a written work is a great way to make sure the publication stays up to date with society, not to mention the benefits this has for archival purposes. Reading a manuscript from a hundred years ago is interesting to be sure, but consider how much more interesting it is if you understand the social field of the same time. By allowing our works to be commented on, we are allowing society to flood its pages, giving depth to the work as a whole.

Before the introduction of the printing press to Western Europe, the way people (I am thinking here especially of poets) spread their work was to read it aloud in front of an audience. For some, poetry was a performance art more than it was a written one. If a listener enjoyed the poem, he or she would write it down. Frequently, these copied-down poems would take on a life of their own, with frequent  mishearings, misspellings, and misinterpretations. The copier-downer was free to write down the poem as they liked and how they saw relevant. Furthermore, the poet him or herself would often adjust their poem to suit their audience or their feelings as the situation saw fit. Their poem was a fluid document. When the printing press and movable type was introduced to Europe, some poets were unhappy with the permanence this gave their poems and chose to reject its use. Some poets believed that publication would deemphasize a poem’s intimacy. The social aspects of poetry preserved a closeness with the reader or listener that was difficult to duplicate through print at the time.

I see current society’s interest in marginalia as a return to this era of “social publication.” “Meaning exists in the exchange, and contrary to modern print assumptions, not solely on the page” (Wollman, 91). By allowing readers to comment on and add their thoughts to a published work, it becomes richly socially-charged in a way that hasn’t really been the norm for centuries. Marginalia adds new life and personality to a text. A text should never be one thing and one thing only: there are so many benefits to opening up your work to the world to see what society has to add to it. As the old adage goes, if you love something, set it free!


Works Referenced:

Slizak, Annie. “The Importance of Print Culture in Seventeenth-Century Poetry.” April 8, 2014.

Wollman, Richard B. “The ‘Press and the Fire’: Print and Manuscript Culture in Donne’s Circle.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Vol. 33, No. 1, The English Renaissance (Winter, 1993). (1993): 85-97. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.

2 Replies to “If you love something, set it free”

  1. Interesting blog, Annie. I completely agree with you that a work, once published, does not exist in a vacuum. And it is exchange of ideas that lead to progress. But seen from a writer’s point of view – and especially in light of Audrey Waters’s blog – inviting annotations and comments can be a slippery slope. Where does healthy debate stop and vitriol begin? And how can a writer ensure the discussion doesn’t get personal or inflammatory? It’s a tricky call to make. Feedback, as you point out, has historically been the norm and should continue to be so. Perhaps if people used annotations to further the conversation rather than forcing an author to shut it down, we could continue to reap the real benefits of marginalia.

    1. I agree with it being a slippery slope, and I do not have an answer to that problem. Realistically, the Internet itself is still relatively new so maybe only time will tell if marginalia will evolve to be as useful as it has been in the past. Even though online marginalia is lousy with personal or inflammatory remarks, I don’t think the answer is to shut it down completely!

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