University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Doodles Not to be Marginalized

Book margins notes reveal the period and the reading habits of the past

Although we have always been told not to scribble in books, English professor Heather Jackson is glad some people have. She has spent 15 years examining annotations left in books of all kinds and says notes in the margins tell a great deal about the culture of a particular society and the reading habits of the past.

“You can see how someone in the 19th century read an 18th-century biography or history, why a reader liked or disliked a certain book, how readers argued with the authors on politics, religion, law and philosophy or how a play was performed in the 1920s,” Jackson says. “These remarks can be an excellent source of historical information.” Her book Marginalia: Readers’ Notes in Books, 1700 – 2000 (Yale University Press) will be published next year.

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