Vocab for Book Lovers: Marginalia


Do you keep your books pristine, or do you, like me, prefer to interact with the text?  Do you dog ear and underline, or do you cringe when there is a crease in the binding?

Most of my family members embrace the pristine approach to books.  My oldest son has been known to carry novels around sealed in a zip-lock bag to prevent damage.  My daughter just told me yesterday that she cannot read my copy of Mosquitoland because I dog-eared too many pages, and a dog-eared page is to her as repulsive as a ripped off cover.  In college, my husband wouldn’t even highlight in his text books!

I have lots of marginalia in my copy of Paradise, by Toni Morrison, one of my favorite books.

I take care of my books, avoiding stains, tears, and bent covers, but I am a huge fan of “respectful notation”.   If I underline, it’s only in pencil, so that any marks can be removed and ink won’t seep through the pages.  I often write in the margins, but again, only in pencil.  All of this careful note making helps me absorb more of what I’m reading, and it’s fun to look back years later on my thoughts about a novel or textbook.  I love this passage from Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide.

Perform marginalia. Reading without writing in the margins is like walking without moving your arms. You can do it and still reach your destination, but it’ll always feel like you’re missing something essential about the activity.

And there’s the Word Nerd Word for the day: marginalia – there’s actually a term for my thoughtful scribbles!

marginalia plural noun from the Latin margin

  • marginal notes or embellishments, as in a book
  • nonessential items

Marginalia is a relatively new to English; its first known use was in 1819.  A related word, marginalize (verb), was first used in 1970.  Thank you, Merriam-Webster.

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Word Nerd Confessions

Do you have marginalia in your books?  What’s your biggest book pet peeve?  Torn covers? Dog ears?

Now, I have to decide if I must buy my daughter her own pristine copy of Mosquitoland.  It’s such a good book, I think I will.  😉

Thanks for getting nerdy with me!







Julia Tomiak

I believe in the power of words to improve our lives, and I help people find interesting words to read. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, and Google+. Member of SCBWI and Wordsmithstudio.org.


  1. I’m definitely like you! I love making notes, dog earring, and underlining –
    respectfully! Funny though, I don’t like to borrow and read other people’s books where they’ve performed too much marginalia (great word!) My son gave me a book I want to read but I can’t stand all his notations – it’s too distracting!

  2. The only time I practice marginalia is with library books or books I definitely want to share with someone else. All other books that are mine – are – mine. They are my tools to understand the world and, if making notes or highlighting helps me, then I do it. (Definitely for new words.) I like little post-its for noting the pages that are important. Prior to post-its I did dog-ear pages. I do admire the practices of your family members, but they are just not my way of dealing with books. Great word Julia. New to me.

  3. I am not a marginalia writer – never have been. I like my books pristine, and I take the dust jacket off while I’m reading. Although I only own about 1% of the books I read (not counting ebooks) – and you can’t write in library books!

    1. My son takes the dust jacket off too! I guess you’d fit in well at my house!

      I should note at this point that I would never write in or fold a page of a borrowed book.

  4. I’m more like your family – no writing and no dog earing – but I’m not sure why since I don’t keep books once I’ve read them. I’m afraid my notes wouldn’t be too thoughtful.

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