Notable Articles and Year in Reading

A Year in Marginalia: Sam Anderson

By posted at 11:00 am on December 16, 2010 36


The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It’s the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible — not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain. Here are some snapshots, month by month, of my marginalia from 2010. (Click each image for a larger view)

Point Omega by Don Delillo


Reality Hunger by David Shields


Bleak House by Charles Dickens


The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver


Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson


The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis



Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson


Freedom by Jonathan Franzen


Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis


The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker



The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois


A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan


Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand


The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon


More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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36 Responses to “A Year in Marginalia: Sam Anderson”

  1. Vee
    at 11:32 am on December 16, 2010

    This makes me miss writing in books. So many in-the-moment observations are forgotten (at least by me!) in the course of replacing them with overarching analysis.

  2. Stephen
    at 11:53 am on December 16, 2010

    This is brilliant. Best “Year in Reading” ever.

  3. JW
    at 11:56 am on December 16, 2010

    This makes me no longer want that Kindle.

  4. Eric
    at 12:39 pm on December 16, 2010

    I stopped marking in my books a few years ago because my wife, another voracious reader whose literary interests overlap in places with my own, would often be reading after me and complain about my thoughts and reactions in the margins pulling her away from her own reactions and understandings of the book. Seeing Mr. Anderson’s intertextual markings here, however, makes me want to reconsider the situation. I miss it too much. We may just have to start buying two copies of some books!

  5. John Williams
    at 1:30 pm on December 16, 2010

    Great post. It’s true that this is sometimes the most fun (and most honest) kind of writing. Also, I now realize I should have just repeatedly punched Reality Hunger in its face — I imagine that would have made the experience of reading it far more tolerable.

  6. JM Blevins
    at 1:34 pm on December 16, 2010

    So you’re the previous owner of all those books I bought at Powell’s.

  7. stephen tully dierks
    at 1:55 pm on December 16, 2010

    sweet idea. i like your work, sam anderson

  8. NME
    at 2:33 pm on December 16, 2010

    Ha! I felt the same way about Reality Hunger…

  9. elle
    at 5:12 pm on December 16, 2010

    I don’t waste time anymore on books that frustrate me. My time is too valuable and there are too many other books out there to read.

  10. Alice
    at 7:21 pm on December 16, 2010

    Oh, I love this! The Millions should start a feature showcasing marginalia–as a big note-maker myself, it’s fascinating to me to get a glimpse of others’ thoughts as they read.

    I agree with your note on the Goon Squad. I know it’s showing up on a lot of the best lists but it left me feeling empty & I think the neatness is a big part of that. It was entertaining, yes–I enjoyed reading it–but it never moved beyond that, and frequently made me eye-rolly as well. (Particularly the powerpoint section. I would like to ban precocious children from literature for at least the next decade. Please?)

  11. Don Hackett
    at 7:35 pm on December 16, 2010

    Marginalia on Marginalia:


    COL (Chortle Out Loud)
    (LOL divided by 2)

    Makes me want to read a book.

  12. Sarah
    at 8:11 pm on December 16, 2010

    @Eric: as Sam’s wife, I can relate. If an unmarked copy isn’t available, I’m often stuck reading his review copy. I go back and forth between enjoying his comments & being irritated by them. If he’s liking a text, his marginalia can feel like a conversation between us, but if he isn’t – the comments can feel a bit oppressive or stifling to my own thoughts about the text. The absolute worst repurcussion of reading a text marked by a person you live with is something I’m sure only the partners of critics must endure: being interrogated about what I think about the marginalia itself:
    Me: lying in bed, reading
    Sam: hey. Did you laugh where I wrote funny right there? (looking over my shoulder)
    Me: bugger off, I’m reading.
    Sam: what about that paragraph I marked as extra important? Super important, right?
    Me: mmmm.
    Ad nauseum.

  13. Ruby
    at 8:40 pm on December 16, 2010

    Fortunate people that y’all can afford to buy books and then mark them up and have that conversation with the writer and yourself. I have to laboriously write lines of dialogue, or paragraphs, or sometimes just a sentence–and away from the context–into a lined notebook. I am 99% a library user. I am so envious.

  14. Dylan Hicks
    at 11:18 pm on December 16, 2010

    This was great. I frequently write “Please!” in review copies. Not clever, but it seems to help.

  15. Friday’s Links « WriteByNight's Blog
    at 7:09 am on December 17, 2010

    […] to The Millions’ “A Year in Reading” includes photos of his own genitalia marginalia. My favorite is the note in David Shield’s Reality Hunger (February): “I’m going […]

  16. Charles-Adam
    at 8:12 am on December 17, 2010

    Thanks for posting this, it was marvelously funny! You’re write in saying that marginalia is the most honest, gut-reaction to literature. I’m sure it can also be the most insightful…

    I particularly liked the “Amis!” I found myself exclaiming something similar when reading Henry James the other day. One of his characters said: “This is so strange, it’s almost like we’re in a novel!” Oh, Henry…

  17. Eric
    at 9:10 am on December 17, 2010

    @Sarah: I empathize. Your post made me laugh with recognition, for I’m guilty of asking my wife about particular sections I’ve marked, too. We mean well!

  18. Morgan
    at 9:05 am on December 20, 2010

    @elle: Congratulations on your decision to stop challenging yourself in any literary sense.

  19. Anton Gully
    at 7:03 pm on December 21, 2010

    I got here via Google Reader Play so I’m probably missing the context because I am unfamiliar with Sam Anderson’s work, but… I don’t get it. I thought it was straight criticism, then I thought it was satire, then… then… I just didn’t know what.

    I read the first couple and thought I understood what you were getting at then I started skipping. Got to “a visit from the Goon Squad” and couldn’t reconcile what you wrote with the original text at all. Perhaps the written text refers to the printed text above it.

    That “Unbroken” quote from “Laura Hillenbrand” is fucking pathetic. So, yeah, ahhh. But really? Just ahhh? Hmm.

    I’m probably too old and smart to understand what you’re trying here but good luck with it. I’m sure that it will only serve to extend the fame of “Sam Anderson”, to ever further boundaries.

  20. Anton Gully
    at 7:09 pm on December 21, 2010

    Wait! You’re a critic? Oh, then FOAD, parasite! God, I feel a lot better about not understanding your scrawl now. Scribble in your own margins. It’ll be therapeutic, and once you’ve finished pawing through your own excrement, you’ll know how an actual artist feels.

    I am totally flitting through these comments so if you’re an amateur critic – shrug – then my apologies, and keep on truckin’! You’ll work it out eventually.

  21. Infovore » Links for December 29th
    at 6:02 am on December 29, 2010

    […] The Millions : A Year in Marginalia: Sam Anderson "The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It’s the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible — not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain. Here are some snapshots, month by month, of my marginalia from 2010." Marvellous stuff from Anderson – funny, wry, hard to argue with. I am not good at marginalia, resorting to dog-earing the bottom of a page, and later, trying to remember why. (tags: reading books marginalia writing ) […]

  22. Notes in the margin > Robin Sloan
    at 1:40 am on January 2, 2011

    […] love this post over at The Mil­lions: scanned mar­gin­a­lia from the shelves of Sam Ander­son. On some pages, he ana­lyzes what he’s read­ing, breaks it […]

  23. » Blog Archive » the exhausted church musician muses on another monday morning
    at 7:21 am on March 7, 2011

    […] The Millions : A Year in Marginalia: Sam Anderson […]

  24. Briefly Noted: Practicing Useful Annotation Strategies -
    at 3:15 pm on March 7, 2011

    […] they might do a class-wide interactive project wherein they form book clubs and share their own marginalia – on paper or digitally – and respond to one another’s notes as they read. What did they […]

    at 7:02 am on May 11, 2011

    […] out more: New York Times / The Millions Published: May 11, 2011 Filed Under: thing Tags: Billy Collins : Book Grafitti : Marginalia : […]

  26. Random Friday | Dana Stabenow
    at 4:02 am on July 29, 2011

    […] Click here to read his post “A Year in Marginalia.” […]

  27. Digitas « Snarkmarket
    at 1:37 am on August 2, 2011

    […] Sarah Werner on what old physical books still have to offer. Hint: it’s not the smell. Another hint: it’s the marginalia. […]

  28. LIFE IS CRITICISM | Welcome to Literary Ashland
    at 3:33 pm on September 30, 2011

    […] about his process—from continuously analyzing sentences to reviving the lost art of writing marginalia in everything he reads (I feel guilty now for fetishizing my books) to the rationale for his […]

  29. 8 Years in Reading: an Interview with C. Max Magee of The Millions | The Outlet: the Blog of Electric Literature
    at 9:49 am on December 16, 2011

    […] CMM: This is a tough one because at this point we’ve had hundreds of people recommend probably a couple thousand books. So, to pick a few that have stuck with me: Margaret Atwood on Wilkie Collins, Alexander Theroux on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Sam Lipsyte on the obscure writer Hob Broun, Helen Dewitt on Edward Tufte. Tom McCarthy on Ingeborg Bachmann, Joshua Cohen on C.M. Doughty, and – maybe my all time favorite entry ever – book critic Sam Anderson’s Year in Marginialia. […]

  30. Artist or Vandal- Books the perfect canvas? | Ms Peacock Escapes
    at 10:52 am on November 28, 2012

    […] many the defacement of a book is sacrilege. Marginalia, that beautiful process of marking up a book, is often met with the worst of admonishments. But […]

  31. Dancing in the margins of books at Pinterest | Critical Margins
    at 10:08 am on January 23, 2013

    […] of marginalia. I’ve followed in the footsteps of writers like Sam Anderson who catalogs his year in marginalia over at The Millions and the New York Times. In fact, Anderson’s work inspired me to write […]

  32. L’annotation et sa temporalisation | Marginalia
    at 9:18 pm on October 7, 2013

    […] pour son journal. Durant une année, il a ainsi annoté, marqué, disséqué des textes puis sélectionné ce qu’il estimait être le meilleur de sa production. En publiant ainsi son matériau, Sam […]

  33. Artist or Vandal: Books the perfect canvas? | Whimsies & Words
    at 3:00 pm on November 9, 2013

    […] many the defacement of a book is sacrilege. Marginalia, that beautiful process of marking up a book, is often met with the worst of admonishments. But […]

  34. Of Marginal Interest | jhublogs
    at 9:03 am on December 27, 2013

    […] his creative process. At the very least, it is humorous. For some writers, marginalia has become a creative expression on its […]

  35. Mana’s Musings: Books are Things Too « HoCoPoLitSo
    at 2:14 pm on July 8, 2015

    […] “A Year in Marginalia: Sam Anderson,” Sam Anderson shares images of marginalia he made in 12 different books in 2010. He writes, “The […]

  36. Sinan Nisanci
    at 7:43 pm on November 18, 2016

    I personally do like marginalia and use very often. Although I have to confess that I used to treat my books as they were some kind of an historic artifact or a masterpiece.
    Well even though some are indeed masterpieces of those authors, as matter of fact they are only a copy. I guess that’s what I realized at some point and after that stopped treating them as they are some unique piece and started inserting my thoughts and other reminders on those margins.
    Also when I buy a second hand book or borrow one from a friend, I like finding some personal traces of their minds…
    As long as it is done neatly of course…

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