Sunday, January 29, 2012


Marginalia! I routinely encourage my students to create marginalia when they read, not because I do, but because it is a habit that encourages critical reading. After all, isn't a dialogue with the author what we're really after as readers?

My heart leaped when I saw what I thought was going to be some of Jack's marginalia, in a Thoreau book no less, but when I read the following it left me with a burning question:
Marginalia have always been at the center of serious reading, but they have a place, too, at the margins of literary history. For a 2010 Talk of the Town piece, Ian Frazier wrote about a trip he took to the New York Public Library to view the annotated former possessions of various literary luminaries. He took particular note of a copy of Thoreau’s “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” which had been borrowed by Jack Kerouac from a local library in 1949, never to be returned. On page 227, Frazier noted a short sentence Kerouac had underlined in pencil, putting a “small, neat check mark beside it.” The sentence: “The traveler must be born again on the road.”
How do we know Jack Kerouac created that marking? Couldn't anyone have underlined that particular sentence? A previous borrower? Or someone managing Jack's estate? I say the latter because, since Jack never returned the book, I assume the New York Public Library acquired it from Jack's estate.

Nevertheless, I can easily imagine Jack underlining that particular sentence and carefully placing a checkmark next to it. We know he read Thoreau. Now, did he underline that sentence before or after coming up with the title of his book? Ian Frazier's original article sheds no light on this, but it would certainly be ascertainable if someone were so inclined to do some sleuthing.

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