Probably more~ In a new Bwog feature, we go into Butler Library to explore some of the most checked-out books at Columbia. Once we find them, we look not at the content of the literature but at the discourse around them. The notes written in by generations of students, if they don’t illuminate some new feature of the texts, should at least tell us a bit about the students who studied them.

If you’re looking for a quiet place to read (or hook up) in Butler, you probably shouldn’t try aisle 15 on the second level of the Butler Stacks. This humble shelf, labelled JA85.2.S9 to JC126.W65, holds political science and political theory texts, many of which are featured in the core’s Contemporary Civilizations. In this edition of Marginalia, we look at notes (and how to read them) from Republic, Politics, and Leviathan.

Tracking readers

One of the joys of marginalia is seeing the wealth of views which have passed over a book, and adding to that dialogue. For those who enjoy used books because of their notes and not only because of their cost, checking out from the library can provide a richer experience than simply buying from upperclassman. Take this excerpt from Hobbes’ Leviathan (ButlStax JC152.H65 2001), in which we see, in one paragraph, the work of three different students.

or is it

Most of the notes you find in books are underlines, highlights, and clarifications. But by tracking writing utensils (yellow highlighter vs. green felt tip pen vs. black ballpoint pen) and occasionally handwriting, we can discern the personalities involved. The black Italian writing on the left margin appears nowhere else in the book aside from on this page. Did they have an Italian professor? Did they study the concept of the Right of Nature in another class, or were they perhaps an Italian student who picked up this book for one minute, scribbled in their native language, and then returned it to the shelves? We’ll never know. Lower on the page, we can also find a blue pen and a pencil used to draw attention to different passages – five authors on one copy from 2001. If every book in Butler were so frequently annotated, there’d be no need for Sparknotes.

Thinking of multiple individuals interacting with the same text makes reading one particular copy of Plato’s Republic all the more insightful (ButlStax JC71.P35 2000). Three different readers display three common CC attitudes in their annotations of the cave allegory (514b-517c). Student A (blue pen) is inquisitive of the text. “What am I a shadow of? Cast by what light?” they interrogate at the beginning of the allegory, unsure of how applicable it really is. Later they wonder, “Can a shadow cast a shadow?” Student B (black pen) seems to come to this copy later than Student A, because they draw a line from Student A’s “What am I a shadow of” question and take it upon themselves to answer. “My eternal existence,” they answer. “That which is out of me is me.” Student B accepts Plato’s ideas more readily, confirming their embrace of the allegory with a later note, “A shadow signifies. They can be distortions of what they signify.” While Students A and B are busy discussing the validity of the allegory, a third student quietly underlines in pencil. At the end of the section, when A and B have said their piece, C writes faintly, “light=knowledge.” If Student A is inquisitive an Student B is affirmative, Student C listens from the corner of the room, praying the professor doesn’t ask them for an opinion.

Bringing thoughts to the table

Have you ever experienced that moment where what you learn in one class relates perfectly to what you read in another? This student has:


The first chapter of this copy of Aristotle’s Politics is filled with six large, all-caps exclamations that Al-Ghazali is related to the ancient Greeks (ButlStax JC71.A41 S47 1997). They read, in order, “Ghazzali!!,” “Al Ghazzali, finding true nature”, “Al Ghazzali,” “Ghazz,” “≠Ghazzali,” and another “≠Ghazzali.” I don’t think I would be out of line in calling this copy the Ghazzali copy. What interests me about this copy is that, by the current (and chronological) curriculum of CC, students read Aristotle before reading Al-Ghazali. One possibility is that this student, studying for a CC final, looked back on Aristotle with their knowledge of later thinkers. However, the strong reaction implied by exclamation points and very hard underlines implies that the student was reading this text for the first time when annotating. Perhaps the student was familiar with Al-Ghazali from a class in their freshman year and brought those thoughts to the table. This could also be a conflation of two different pencil-using students – one wrote the exclamation points while another filled the chapter with Ghazzali’s. Whatever the cause, if you pick up this copy from the stacks, expect to think forward 1500 years when reading Aristotle.

Of course, marginalia can also be less intellectual. While an average margin note clarifying a paragraph could read “self discipline; subjects agree who should rule,” they can also be more blunt. Our copy of the Republic from earlier aptly summarizes the careful arguments made at 458e with the note, “NO CASUAL SEX.” The Leviathan excerpt that started this article is just a few pages away from a sloppily penciled in statement, “The state of nature is a mess.” And another writer in the same copy shouts a loud, large, “HA!” at Hobbes when he analogizes luck and women at the end of chapter 26.

These marginalia writers are students with a similar volume of experience as us. They bring thoughts into the classroom and interact with each other just like we do today. And they, just like us, get really frustrated when authors don’t make sense (Republic, 478c):

why tho

All pictures via Ross Chapman himself