Robert McCrum - On Books - The Guardian.
Marginalia, of the kind scratched all over Graham Greene's library by the author, can be fascinating – but aren't they also a little disrespectful?
When Greene died, his heirs and trustees were faced with the conundrum of what to do about his library, an archive of some 3,000 volumes. This was not just a matter of dispersing several boxes of hardbacks. Greene's personal collection deserved to be kept intact as almost a primary source, for one very good reason: Greene used to annotate his books with all kinds of marginalia, reflecting a long and crowded life of writing, politics, travel and friendship.
Scattered along the margins, and jotted on the flyleaves and endpapers of his books are thousands of tiny, meticulous, handwritten notes and comments: skeletal plot summaries; word counts for the novel-in-progress; fragments of stories, films and plays; and snippets of dialogue, many of them made in the course of Greene's constant wandering. These add up to a quite singular imaginative phenomenon, a window on the mind and fancy of a major 20th century writer, often at the very instant of inspiration.
Greene's library (which was eventually sold, intact, to an archive in Boston) is all the more important because he left few other traces. He was a man who disguised and guarded his personal footsteps. Visitors to his apartment in Antibes were always struck by the simplicity of his life.
But this blogpost is not really about Greene, fascinating though he is, it's about the act of writing in our books. If we are not Graham Greene (and we're not), how much ought we to write in our own volumes? Is it vandalism to use a hardback as an informal notebook? What happens to marginalia in the age of the Kindle? Remembering that the monks who compiled the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages used to doodle in the margins of the vellum, should we similarly exercise a right to self-expression in our books?
Cards on the table: I write all over proof copies, and paperbacks, but hesitate to mark a nice hardback. What about you?