Life in the Margins


My desk blotter with my random marginalia

Some people, when they begin a new job, buy an new outfit to start off on the right foot. Me? I bought a used book. I have started a job digitizing medieval manuscripts and had the very clever idea to read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to get myself in the proper frame of mind.

“It matters a great deal, because here we are trying to understand what has happened among men who live among books, with books, from books, and so their words on books are also important” (112).


So far in my job, no one has been murdered. Although I have enjoyed Eco’s non-fiction, I have to admit it is the very genre of the “murder mystery” that put me off reading The Name of the Rose in the first place much less seeing the film. I don’t like the feeling of terror. The Exorcist was my first and last horror movie and Inspector Montalbano is the only detective I will ever love (but, Salvo, rest assure, I do love you). Basically, I’m a chicken. I am therefore happy to report that three murders in, I am forging ahead: labyrinth; dark, smoky intoxicating halls; ghoulish imagery; and creepy monks aside, the joy of reading about parchments and rubicators as I handle the very sorts of books that are at the center of the mystery in The Name of the Rose is tremendous fun.

An ancient proverb says, three fingers hold the pen, but the whole body works. And aches (128).

True, the script I am photographing is mind bogglingly small. I may go blind just trying to focus my camera never mind contemplate how they wrote in such a miniscule hand – nevertheless, I feel a kinship of sorts to the scribes of these texts. I prepare them to be ‘scribed’ by the computer, but we have the same problems, ye old monk and I: making copies, trying to get the details right, uncomfortable chairs, lighting issues, all in an effort to share the knowledge contained within.

Terce: In which Adso, in the scriptorium, reflects on the history of his order and on the destiny of books (181).

I think the biggest loss in the act of transcribing these books to a digitalized format is that in binary code, there is no room for marginalia. One thousand years from now that will be the most frustrating loss for archivists. They will want to know that I cursed in three different languages when I mistakenly failed to adjust the focus on fifty images. Alas, they will never know. The loss to history is….incalculable.



*The Name of the Rose translated from the Italian by William  Weaver

15 responses to “Life in the Margins

  1. What a stunning job! Congrats. Can I do it too? I haven’t read The Name of The Rose for the same reasons. Can one choose which books one handles? I don’t work in a bookstore any longer for the same reasons … I can’t bear to be surrounded by books I can’t bear.

  2. Jessica —
    An intriguing post. Reading Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” while digitally copying Medieval manuscripts is, indeed, an inspired approach. As for the lost marginalia, you are right to be concerned. The loss is beyond measure. One of the things I learned very early as a writer is need to do your own research, for the real story is frequently not on the printed page but what you will encounter in the margins and footnotes.

    There is a book recently published by two NYC antiquarian booksellers named George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler titled “Shakespeare’s Beehive.” Several years ago, they purchased what amounts to an Elizabethan “dictionary” — John Baret’s “Alvearie” printed in 1580. The book is a compilation of words in English with equivalents in Greek, Latin and French. Baret was a Cambridge don who sent his students out to gather these entries as well as definitions of “harde words.” What makes this particular text so tantalizing is that it is filled with marginalia by whomever owned it — references and connections to words and phrases that crop up in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. Fascinating.

    Koppelman & Wechsler spent several years studying these marginalia and believe that the original owner might have been Shakespeare, himself — explaining how a young man who never went to Cambridge could have acquired the wealth of knowledge that limn his works. “Shakespeare’s Beehive” (Axeltree Books, NY) is their defense of this proposition. Published in concert with the 450th anniversary of the Bard’s birth — April 23rd, 1564 — the book is a limited edition (2000 copies) intended for universities and libraries. But having written a screenplay that I am currently attempting to mount that essentially deals with Shakespeare’s “lost years” (i.e., virtually no record exists of where he was or what he was involved with between the years 1585 and 1592), I decided to purchase a copy.

    Brilliantly detailed, it makes a compelling case. Regarding marginalia, they write: “Of significant importance, after a number of readings, one could see that the markings — whether added words or symbols — were part of a characteristic method and were continually interrelated, and the whole was suggestive of a single annotator at work over an indeterminate but clearly substantial amount of time…” Without question, it will take time to convince the many doubters, but perhaps we may at last be able to establish with clear evidence that Shakespeare (not Marlowe or Bacon or the Earl of Oxford or anyone else) was the author of the plays that so shape our language and our thought. So clearly, as you’ve already discovered, marginalia is critical as we attempt to unravel the past.

    Good luck with the work. Your dad would have been proud. — Gar

    • Gar, I haven’t read that book, but I did read Adam Gopnik’s wonderful article in the New Yorker concerning the potential discovery. I agree with you, all the action is on the margins! I really feel that the wonderful thing about putting the images of the pages into a digitalized data base is that people can discover all that is out there and then go see the actual book – there is beauty, art, mystery, and life in the actual objects themselves. Thank you for your wonderful comment!

  3. Are you photocopying stuff, editing out decorative initials, intentional drolleries and ad hoc marginalia, to be OCR-ed then digitized as mere text? Then sad for us kindle readers, we’ll miss a lot. At least you get to see the entire pages. And a job’s a job, these days.
    But we e-readers can compensate via blogs, which are in a way manuscripts, they are written one page at a time and are easily drollerized. Can you imagine the Lindisfarne Gospels or Codex Gigas with popup GIFs?
    I read “… the rose” too, way back when I had a young and agile mind. Read Barth, Fowles, even Pynchon; you gotta see this:
    I tried, just last year, to read some of Eco’s nonfiction (“Kant and …”) and found his assumption that all readers are polyglot difficult to get over. I liked “…the rose” and still read d-fiction, but mainly as a soporific that’s less diuretic than herb tea.
    Keep up the good work.

    • I’m photographing them, so each page will be as it appears. Of course I wouldn’t mark them, but it seems to me all readers should leave their mark. I love to read books that someone else has read, remarked on, left tear stains….I suppose if I was much more clever than I am or ever will be I could embed messages of complaint and exultation as it moves me into the code…for now, my blog will have to suffice on that score.
      Sorry if this is a dumb question but what is d-fiction?…dramatic? diaphanous? discursive? dreary?

  4. So you shoot the whole page and the owners of the images you make are the ones who remove the marginalia, etc. after the pages are “scribed,” i.e scanned, keeping only the dis-cursive parts, the text? The pun is intended. But somewhere, in maze-like digital libraries, the “originals,” the pixels patterns represent the whole pages you copied, that is, exist and they could be displayed, decorations and all. Not a dumb question, but a dumb abbreviation, sorry, D for detective.

  5. Just another small overlap…I actually read The Name of the Rose, outloud, to my Grandmother, during the time we lived together in Italy in 1985. Most particularly, we had gone for a few days to Sienna and rented a room in an old Piazza, with very high ceilings and tall windows with interior shutters, the rest of the room was bare, but for a bed and two tables and two lamps. we lay abed, with one lamp lit as I read the Introduction, of course in Latin. It was long and strangely beautiful, there in that room. My Grandmother was a one for atmosphere, so it was a pleasure. I have never forgotten it.

    • Oh that’s perfect, I can just picture it! I love reading books that enhance a trip- I read The Leopard in Sicily and it really made me see things with a more expansive eye.
      And to read the book outloud to your grandmother! What a lovely memory to have..

  6. Congrats belatedly on your new job. shame about the margins. I used to work in a book warehouse/graveyard. I loved the ones that were scribbled on but they were generally binned. I love the comments – often corrections of the texts, and the mystery of who wrote them – crazy people who knew nothing or someone who knew more than the author. Shame we can’t cite the scribblings.

  7. Now, there’s an exciting book, and I did see the film. I think it was an underappreciated production. I think most movie-goers in North America, at least at that time, weren’t going to buy into a story and dramatization of that era that didn’t have wizards and dragons in it. I think that’s a why most didn’t understand it.

    I enjoyed it.

  8. I may end up watching it….I’m a little scared. I’m sure the film can’t go into all the intricate and convoluted history of the orders and rivalries between them, but the scary stuff – I’m sure they focus on!

  9. Pingback: Insecta. Hominis. Peregrinator. | so very very

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