By: Paul J. Morrison
I write in books. Bibliophiles may cringe at the thought or offer a hearty amen, but I have found writing in books to be one of the clearest ways to retain information and to have a reference point when I return. To do this well, I have a system of underlining and notation. A single line is a thought that caught my intention, two is a central claim or thought of the writer’s argument, and a heavy scribble of sorts usually ends up on twitter. On the other hand, a wide zig-zag is something I found humorous, whether it was intended to be or not, and a sharp and narrow zig-zag is a claim I question, or flatly reject, for one reason or another. Arrows and circles, stars and boxes each have a distinct place in the shorthand of my mind.
But unless I were to explain this system or create a ledger of sorts, a reader might just as well assume each was a different pass through the work or draw their own conclusion about points with which I may agree or disagree. However, there is a space for assessment to be made clear: the margin. Many of the margins of my books record questions and thoughts, applications and cross-references. If I have read a book enough times, assorted colored inks totally obfuscate what used to be a blank space.
That is of course the intent of the margin; a blank space. No reputable publisher or editor, no matter how cheap, would cram each line of text to the page’s edge. Space is given to let the eye breathe. There is something well to be said of allowing margin where it would be possible to print word. Our culture celebrates outrage and opinion, to have a witty comeback or pithy remark. I, myself, am a guilty participant in this culture of constant-speech.
When I read the Psalms, or reflect on the words of Christ, there is much said that is profound and weighty. This is of course what Scripture is: the revealed word of God. But I am struck also by where it is silent. I do not, of course, mean to make arguments from silence, or ask why there is no explicit mention of some facet of life. I believe Scripture to be wholly sufficient. What I mean to say is that I am struck by the margins.
When Christ is given every opportunity to reveal himself plainly, or to defend the false-accusations raised against him, he often remains silent. Of course, he was not dumbfounded or at a loss for words. He chose not to speak. He chose to let the page breathe.
You might be able to guess from my annotation habits that I struggle with this. I constantly try to fill the empty space around me. I feel that I always must be moving at 100mph or that I am wasting away. But then I look to the pattern of the margin. Dr. Richard Swenson has applied this principle to suggest we assess emotional, physical, financial, and time overloads in our lives to reestablish reserves. But I humbly etch sharp and narrow zig-zags beneath my previous sentence. I write “cf.” in the adjacent margin and jot beside it, “Gen. 2:1-3. Sabbath.”
The first margin came at the point of creation. God completed his work and he rested. He patterned the margin for us on the first page of history.
Silence and blank space can communicate deeply and profoundly. They confess a trust in God to affect change and result, vengeance and justice, consequence and reward.
I will not stop writing in the margins of my books any time soon, but I will try to live more marginally.