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A Marginal History

20 minutes
First broadcast:
Friday 14 January 2011

Justin Champion rummages through public and academic libraries to see how the defacing of books over centuries of reading sheds light on the history of reading and information.

We've all been brought up to believe that writing in books is literary sacrilege: small children are still told off for colouring in their own books. How many hearts have sunk when opening a library book to find biro underlining, marginal commentary, or plain simple abuse?

The rules and regulations of public libraries sternly outline the penalties and punishment for such crimes. The modern obsession with the unmarked book has been famously broken by a few notorious readers: Joe Orton and his partner, Kenneth Halliwell, served a four month sentence for defacing library books. In 1959 they began a two year campaign of stealing and defacing books from the Islington public library, then smuggling them back into the stacks, where they shocked and appalled patrons and staff alike.

Surprisingly though this passion for the clean page is a recent cultural attitude: it is a consequence of the increasing commodification of the trade in second hand and rare books - books without marks simply command a greater price. Book dealers used to crop marginalia from their titles to increase their value.

In the past it was different: annotating, marking, and including marginal comments was approved and encouraged. There were handbooks explaining the best way of doing it. Historians of the book have only very recently recognised that these marks in books are the surviving traces of how real readers encountered books.

In A Marginal History, Justin Champion and Bill Sherman look in the margins of some of the intriguing books and manuscripts in the British Library's collection to shed light on this practice of marking books.


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