As technology changes, so too do its critics. Amid fears (unsubstantiated, at least for now) about the rise of eBooks—that Kindles, iPads, and Nooks will take over printed material and rid us of our libraries—a group called Oxford University Marginalia has taken to Facebook, attempting to save the art of writing within the margins of library books.

According to a December piece in The New Yorker by Lauren Collins, the group started in 2012 when April Pierce, an Oxford graduate student, saw a note scribbled on a reference book she was working on and shared it on Facebook. The post became the idea for something bigger—thus the public Facebook group, which Pierce currently moderates. Today, Oxford University Marginalia relies heavily on its followers, mostly students at Oxford, who post photographs of marginalia they have run into.

For the most part, the posts depict the literary equivalents of bathroom graffiti. Readers get into fights about trivial matters. On the title page of “The Homecoming” by Harold Pinter, for example, a reader described the play as a “pretentious piece of crap,” while another told the first reader to “stick to Dan Brown.” A third reader responded to the second with “LOL.”

Some readers criticized the writers in the passages, writing quick, derisive comments like “loser,” “get a life,” and “er, bullocks” in response to arguments.

Marginalia also has a scholarly side. A quick search of “marginalia research” on Google yields 407,000 links, many of them to scholarly books and articles. Harvard University has an entire collection in the Robbins Library devoted to marginalia. A proposal in 2014 to release the information online explained that “making visible our collection of marginalia…stands to benefit philosophers as well as historians, literary scholars, and others.”

Much of this research has been conducted in order to please certain people’s base fascination with celebrity. As the Harvard proposal suggests, many of the people researching marginalia are literary scholars, seeking information about how certain writers have read.

At best, the information is entertaining, akin to the findings by Oxford University Marginalia. T.S. Eliot, for instance, wrote the annotations “What the devil does this mean?” and “damn’d Locke,” in response to “Logische Untersuchungen” by German philosopher Edmund Husserl, according to Collins’ piece (decidedly similar in tone to some of those posted on the Facebook page). Ian Frazier wrote in a 2010 New Yorker piece about a copy of “55 Short Stories from The New Yorker” that Vladimir Nabokov had owned. Nabokov graded each of the stories, giving only two grades of A+: one for “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger, the other for “Colette,” his own work.

At worst, the information can be disturbing. The finding of it can feel invasive.

In 2010, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin announced that it had opened the archive of the late author David Foster Wallace for research purposes. The archive included, in addition to some of Wallace’s own manuscripts, over 300 books from Wallace’s library. The books were often heavily marked.

In an essay for “The Smart Set” from Drexel University, Mike Miley explains the discoveries that can be gleaned from these manuscripts. Miley read through Wallace’s annotations and found that he marked readings he identified with in two ways: with “DW” and with “DFW.”

“DFW” was Wallace’s creative persona, devoted to things related to his writing. (Miley gathered this information from a postcard, in which Wallace wrote to Don DeLillo that “seeing my full name used in print feels like Lee [Harvey Oswald] did in ‘Libra’—another reason that book is probably my favorite of yours.”) “DW” was for more personal connections.

David Foster Wallace killed himself in 2008. He had previously had a large amount of recognition and many fans due to his 1,074-page novel, “Infinite Jest.” Today, though, much of his repute has to do with his suicide. Since dying, he has been the subject of moderated events, such as “Reading David Foster Wallace” at the 2012 New Yorker Festival; documentaries, such as “Endnotes” from the BBC; and biographies, such as “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story” by D. T. Max.

It is nearly impossible to read the passages marked “DW” without thinking of Wallace’s eventual suicide. In the passage of the introduction of Richard Schacht’s “Alienation,” Miley says, Wallace wrote “DW”: “…the creative life is full of depressions, and very few have talent enough to find an overall sense of satisfaction in it.”

Reading these comments for many counts as scholarship. But what is there to learn from it?

The satisfaction in reading Wallace’s marginalia has less to do with wanting to gain insights about his writing than it does with wanting to see something marked “DW,” something intended as private that has been distorted for public display. Reading is, after all, a private act, taking place away from other people. Even if something is read in public, the print is hidden from the view of everyone but the reader.

For Wallace, this means that people reading his annotations often find, or even look for, hints of his suicide: what made him commit it, why he was depressed.

This is not to say that there is no value in researching marginalia. As the Harvard proposal states, marginalia can be of benefit to historians analyzing cultural phenomena. By comparing how people have written in books in the past to how they write in them now—what instruments (pencils or pens) they use, what they write about—marginalia can say a great deal about our past and our present. These analyses, though, only provide information because they are rooted in broad phenomena, in how entire cultures function.

Reading the annotations of authors, it seems, rarely goes beyond the level of literary tabloid. Their intention, theoretically, is to illuminate how a person, an author, thought. But they do so on the personal level, providing insights that limit themselves to the private life of the writer.

Defenders of the practice may claim that the information found in this research only constitutes a fraction of the research into an author’s work. Much of the rest occurs by reading the author’s books. This seems to be the philosophy of the entire digital age: that information should be gathered in as great a quantity as possible, without consideration for questions of privacy or utility. And it is defended by a group assembling out of the fear that, soon, print may die by way of electronics.

Lee is a member of the class of 2016.

  • Aaron

    I recently watched a documentary narrated by Meryl Streep called “Out of Print”. It’s about this topic, I think the fears are not only substantiated, but confirmed. At least as you think of a traditional library. Certainly bookstores are closing all over the country. Libraries are more and more becoming meeting places and just places where digital media are stored and dispensed. Paper books are disappearing. Personally, I think it’s a very bad thing in the long run. The main problem is that it facilitates more shallow thinking. Deep, critical thought it is more conducive to paper. And as the world gets more complicated, this kind of robust, critical thinking is more needed than ever, so this is a serious problem.

  • David “Harp” Feldman ’73

    Hi Max, interesting article.
    I am interested in DFW (and DW) myself…
    Thanks for writing this.
    Dave Feldman ’73 AKA David Harp