A Year in Marginalia: Sam Anderson

December 16, 2010 | 11 books mentioned 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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is the New York Times Magazine's Critic at Large. He is writing a book about Oklahoma City.


  1. 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. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?)

  6. Marginalia on Marginalia:


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

    Makes me want to read a book.

  7. @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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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…

  10. @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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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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