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Marginalia

Ovide, Nasonis metamorphoseos, Lyon, 1513

The historian's view on handwritten notes has changed significantly in the past half-century.

Since the 1970s, marginalia written by famous readers such as Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Samuel T. Coleridge, Charles Darwin and Stendhal have been the subject of critical editions; these notes documented their sources of inspiration and their working methodologies. Nowadays, the focus has turned to annotations from less well-known readers. They provide a way to understand the material and intellectual processes within the book through the transmission and appropriation of texts. Used as a bookmark, a memorisation tool, a device for grasping a difficult passage, a means to rebel against dangerous ideas, or a way to answer an esteemed author, handwritten notes reveal some of the strategies the reader used while studying the book.

However, nothing is so straightforward. Beyond real dating and attribution issues surrounding written works, the wide range of individual cases seems to defy any attempt at synthesis. Is it truly feasible to base the history of reading on so few examples? Such an exercise is in fact possible, as note-taking is by no means limited to just the individual. It is above all a social practice integral to the larger culture of the written word, one defined by the rules and uses of writing. Presented through urban writing and typography, this "culture of writing" has been consistently upheld by education systems over time. Family traditions, social classes and religious beliefs shape this culture as well, and the individual gathers a sense of it in his or her own writing. By studying this dialogue between shared cultural models and the personal experience of reading, we can interpret the act of note-taking and its various forms.