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How to Leave Masterly Marginalia

N.B. This is a how-to that will only get better with your help

It can be a polarizing question: Do you write in the books you own? Some people do and some don't. Emotions often run high in both camps as to the usefulness and rectitude of their divergent positions.

For those who are Preservationists and don't write in books, we understand your position and salute you. Because of your abstinence, future readers will enjoy your unadulterated books.

We also understand Footprint Leavers, and it is to you writers in books that this message is aimed.

As a Footprint Leaver, you know how writing in books can aid your understanding and retention as you carry on a dialog with the author. We would like to assist you in that dialog with this online edition of our Helpful Reader's Marks for Masterly Marginalia. And we're hoping you'll add some of your own.

We searched high and low in the mid-90s, and to our surprise found that no such list of reader's marks existed, so we decided to make our own. We borrowed some from proofreaders' marks, such as paragraph ( ¶ ). Others we lifted from Latin abbreviations, such as "that is" (i .e.) and "compare with" (c. f.). Others came from mathematics, such as , the symbol for "therefore". One even comes from Winston Churchill's handwritten letters—his pithy version of  "very" as vy.

We put our collection of Reader's Marks in the covers of some of our notebooks and in a bookmark that we included in packages. Since we published this list, we've come across more shorthand invented by creative Footprint Leavers.

Peter Brown, attorney, author and consummate reader, uses an   to indicate an anecdote, and to indicate quotation. (He'll underline the passage, too.) Later, he'll go back to reinforce his memory and will employ both in his conversation and writing.

Click here for a full page, printer friendly PDF

Why marginalia matters

Throughout history, readers have penned notes in the margins. Some of these have been more than just personal observations, valuable as these are to the reader. They became a way of formulating new truths and passing on that knowledge.

As Owen Gingerich details in his ironically titled The Book That Nobody Read (Walker and Company, 2004), other astronomers did, in fact, read Nicolaus Copernicus's sixteenth-century work De revolutionibus, in which he posited that the earth and not the sun was the one making all those revolutions. The astronomers' annotations proved as revolutionary as Copernicus's theory: these notes in the margins actually helped to advance the acceptance of the theory among scientists.

Make your own mark on marginalia

Do you have your own favorite marks? Perhaps you use symbols or abbreviations from your profession. Are there some email abbreviations that are transferable back to handwriting in the margins of books? (Ah, the exquisite irony! The @ symbol, after all, was in use long before we all got mail.) Please pass your suggestions to us via snail mail to the address below.

For submissions we find particularly useful, clever or funny, we will add them to our evolving list hosted at We look forward to your notes in the margin!

Send your handwritten submissions to:

ATTN: Marginalia Maven
420 South Congress Avenue
Delray Beach, FL 33485

Please include your name,  phone and email address in case we need to contact you. Thank you!