Friday, 29 June 2012


Marginalia: the scribbles and doodles on the margins of books. First recorded use of the word is in 1819 in Blackwood’s Magazine.

Fermat’s Last Theorem is possibly the most famous marginalia. Around 1637 Fermat wrote, what is considered his Last Theorem, in the margin of his copy of the Arithmetica next to Diophantus' sum-of-squares problem ending with the words, “I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.” He never wrote about the proof ever again. Till 1995, when it was finally proven, Fermat's Last Theorem was considered the most difficult problem in Mathematics.

Samuel T. Coleridge’s marginalia, the scribbles he made in the margins of other people's books, is published in five volumes.

A secondhand book on science bought from Broadway Market Bookstore travels the seven seas just because of the dedication scribbled on the opening page by a 9 year old in 1936. One-dimensional flowers and butterflies pop out from dairies that haven’t been opened in ages. Characters with their eyes about to burst out, the same toothy donkey, extra-terrestrial beings, anatomically implausible birds, little girls with triangular bodies, the occasional dog, more flowers than one can count, rudderless boats, esoteric line drawings of nothing– are scattered all around the house, living within the pages of various books.

But our marginalia is cloistered mostly in notebooks and diaries. Any conversation we are having with the text is not recorded for posterity in the margins of the book being read. We somehow never got to the stage of leaving a mark on books like a dog does on a hydrant.* That is something that is encountered only in books found in second-hand bookstores or the one’s borrowed from the library. In case of the latter various found objects––airline boarding passes, laundry and ATM receipts,  unidentifiable food stains, email address noted on torn edges of envelops––add to the mystifying dialogue.

All this, though, pales in the face of the scribbles of overworked monks and copyists. Michael Camille even wrote a book about it. The 'amusing doodles' found in the margins of the illuminated texts shine a light on the life of the 'others'– the underbelly of society. The marginalia found in medieval manuscripts, overwhelming feature the grotesque and the profane, and seem to subvert the message of the texts they appear on the margin's of. However, they often not only uphold, but also reinforce the conventional, rigid hierarchies. Or as Camille writes, “the edges of discourse...always return us to the rules of the center.” (Suffice to say a longer explanation would require going into among other things the nature of and the relationship between the sacred and the profane through the ages, which is way beyond the intention and scope of this post.)

Then there are the modern day scholars scribbling in the margins of much loved/hated texts in college libraries.  Some content to express their feelings through the amount of energy expended in underlining the fateful lines. Others making “in-jokes” that in just a couple of years will seem redundant if not completely absurd. Though some jokes, mostly involving the grotesque and the profane, seem to live long and prosper.

*Tara Bray Smith

Afterword: Of course not everyone is enthused by marginalia. For me personally, food stains on books are a cause of great agony. For libraries marginalia, of any and every sort, is an act of vandalism.

For those enthralled by marginalia, more can be found in a book about readers writing in books. H J Jackson, an editor of Coleridge’s poems (which could explain her fascination with the subject), scours though books and the annotations made by readers, famous and obscure, over the last three centuries in an attempt to cover the history, psychology and the ‘dark side’ of marginalia and brings into focus the war between the ‘annotators’ and the ‘bibliophiles’.

Or else, here is Billy Collins reading his poem titled Marginalia, which incidentally is the only instance in which I find food stains on books beautiful.

Monday, 25 June 2012

An Afternoon in the Stacks

Closing the book, I find I have left my head
inside. It is dark in here, but the chapters open
their beautiful spaces and give a rustling sound,
words adjusting themselves to their meaning.
Long passages open at successive pages. An echo,
continuous from the title onward, hums
behind me. From in here the world looms,
a jungle redeemed by these linked sentences
carved out when an author traveled and a reader
kept the way open. When this book ends
I will pull it inside-out like a sock
and throw it back in the library. But the rumor
of it will haunt all that follows in my life.
A candleflame in Tibet leans when I move.

- An Afternoon in the Stacks, a poem by William Stafford

Monday, 18 June 2012

Why it is better to watch a Fellini film rather than logging onto facebook

Just the other day I realized that facebook is like a public square– a public square from a scene from a film by Federico Fellini. We had just watched Fellini’s I clowns and so, naturally one’s mind was sharp as a razor and attuned to all sorts of metaphors and comparisons, invented or real.

Recollect the opening of Amarcord– the burning of the ‘Old Witch of Winter’ and celebration of the arrival of spring. Now remember the people milling around in the square: the town idiot, the blind accordion player ridiculed by the schoolboys, the buxom and stout middle-aged tobacconist, the street vendor who is an incorrigible liar, the town lawyer who has a penchant for narrating the town’s history (even when no one is listening), the mindlessly exhibitionist motorcycle rider clad in black and of course, the town beauty. Not to forget the odd nymphomaniac. Well, that’s the average person’s facebook wall. A public square in a sexually repressed provincial town in a film by Fellini.

The way one would behave in a public square then, it seems, is the ideal way to behave on facebook. Look at the displays in the shop windows, enter only if you see something that catches your eye, there is no obligation to say you ‘like’ something even if you like it, smile if someone makes an eye contact and speak only when you are spoken too. In short, try not to be the village idiot standing on the soapbox mouthing inanities or the motorcycle rider ceaselessly vrooming to and fro in a pathetic attempt to catch everyone’s attention. Most importantly, only visit when you need something or  when something special is happening. Even then chances are it wouldn’t be half as fantastic or rewarding as a Fellini film.

That’s why it is always better to watch a Fellini film rather than logging onto facebook.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Love is not all

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.

It well may be. I do not think I would.

Love is not all, a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

A beautiful reading of the poem accompanied by paintings of Edvard Munch is available here.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Rainy Day Thoughts

I am holding Granta's May edition titled ‘Britain’ in my hands, and staring at the cover all I can think of is:

And the crack in the tea cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.*

How strange this connection between man and poetry. 

If you have ever read a poem and felt the lines spoke to you; they articulated your thoughts and hopes then you'd understand why 'In relation to the future, a poem is like a note sealed in a bottle and thrown into the sea'. Charles Simic in a recent post in NY review of books states, “If poetry is not the most utopian project ever devised by human beings, I don’t know what is”. You’ll have to read Simic’s post to work out how (or even whether) this sentiment applies to your understanding of poetry. For words and the constant misunderstanding of the intent behind them could, if one is pressed for a quick response, be summarized as the sum total of the drama that is human existence. Though one would, perhaps, end with a flourish– ‘all existence is meaningless’.

Talking about meaning and misunderstanding, or should it be called different ways of understanding, the poem that comes to mind is Yeats ‘The Second Coming’**. Lines from this poem get quoted with regular frequency whenever the world has faced a crisis in recent history, just like Keynes during an economic crisis. And just like Robert Frost and the end of 'The Road Not Taken' (it is the sigh– I shall be telling this with a sigh––that makes one pause and consider the road not taken), here too it is the last few lines that have been widely interpreted.

Though if you read the poem carefully and ‘see’ the vast image brought forth by the Spiritus Mundi (spirit of the world) would you still believe that the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem could be our saviour? And if you read about Yeats and his theory of gyres then the doubts will recede further.

Why does a poet write? Why does a reader read? Sometimes these seem like questions worth considering, though most of the time a person pens a few lines and moves on. Another person reads them and moves on. Just like life.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.***

*W.H. Auden, As I walked out one evening.

**TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Interesting trivia: The Second Coming has not only been quoted in many books, comics and music albums, but also has been the source of the titles of some very popular books:

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Mere Anarchy by Woody Allen
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

***The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, translated by Edward FitzGerald.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Quit Your Books

Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun, above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless--
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

The Tables Turned, a poem by William Wordsworth.
The singing bird is the Chaffinch, not the throstle (song thrush) mentioned in the poem.