First, I don’t think people have a purpose so I think there’s a flaw in the question. This may seem a bit harsh, but essentially, there is no inherent purpose to people. People give themselves purpose, spend years searching for purpose, state their purpose clearly, and occasionally try to fulfil their purpose. They spend more time than all this combined telling other people what their purpose is too, which is worse.
But there is nothing inherently purposeful about any of this. I’ve said it before, why’s are nonsensical questions once you get down to the point. Deep enough into a reason, you lose sight of reason. Most four year olds know this, and play the game incessantly, but somewhere down the line we appear to lose that knowledge. We are forgetful people.
Which perhaps is one initial reason why people annotate work with marginalia. (See how I wrapped that back round to the topic there? I am so fucking classy.)
The most straightforward reason for writing in a book is because you are trying to make sense of it, and you want to draw yourself back to things that made you think, shout, or question. Books are not always the easiest thing to sift through in a hurry. They have no ctrl+f.
So there is a logic.
Of course, technically, if you do this in a library book, you’re a bastard.
I have real trouble with stuff that’s been highlighted by someone else. I find myself unable to read words that aren’t highlighted. I find my eyes bouncing off the page, skipping from one nonsensical phrase to the next, trying to work out why someone has emphasised every use of the work ‘fork’ in the works of Immanuel Kant.
That pisses me off. And technically, it’s vandalism. Damaging the property of the commons.
But despite all technicalities, in my secret self, I actually love marginalia. Some of my favourites are where someone is clearly an idiot, and has misinterpreted something. This is perhaps cruel, as it no doubt only reinforces the misinterpretation for the next idiot. (For the record, there are no idiots, I’m being an elitist bully, which makes me the only idiot.)
Another is where someone has taken the time to simply right ‘WHAT!?’ and underline it three times. That’s great. It adds nothing to the discussion, but when you spot it in the margin you can’t wait to get to that bit and see whether it induces a similar ‘WHAT!?’ in you.
People who just note their boredom are themselves boring.
People who respond to other people’s notes are optimistic and naive. And normally both parties are utterly wrong.
People who draw willies are obviously idiots (but I will ALWAYS giggle to myself at least a little).
The best thing about it though, is it undermines the solidity of the text. It reminds you that history and knowledge is a dialogue. It is dialectics in motion.
And if you do it in fiction you should be shot.
Illustration by Henry