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Influence, Confluence, and Writing in the Margins: Reading Notes and Literary History

By Wim Van Mierlo


In her book, Marginalia: Reading Writing in Books (2001), Heather Jackson remarks that the study of marginalia has usually been limited to case histories, the analysis of individual annotators and their books. In a lucid and engaging manner, Jackson for the first time provided a “theory” of annotating by drawing on an immense corpus of examples. Considering marginalia as a genre, she describes the general principles that are characteristic of writing in the margins in terms its form, purpose, function and even aesthetic quality.\ud Even though Jackson does not disregard historical context, her generic approach broadly amounts to a psychological treatment of reading and annotating. What can marginalia tell us about our literary heritage and print culture? How can our knowledge of the work of notetakers and note-extractors contribute to our understanding of literary history?\ud Insofar as reception history constitutes an archaeology of literary opinion and thought, capturing fluctuations in taste, aesthetic appreciation and critical judgment, marginalia give us access to “original” opinion, to private debates between readers and writers, to what pleases or what causes dislike. The registration of a reader’s individual response—both of a general or specific nature—in the margins of a text can be used to compare readers’ ideas to the opinions of their time, and thus provide a different—if not more accurate view—of literary merit, style, canonicity, influence and so on. Using a small number of authors and annotators from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, I will in this paper try to elucidate the above statements, concentrating in particular on the notion of influence to investigate an alternative model to Bloom’s sharp distinction between strong writers and epigones.This is a revised version of a paper presented at the "Material Cultures and the Creation of Knowledge" conference at the Centre for the History of the Book, University of Edinburgh, 21-24 July 2005. <

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