Ale has killed us
– A note scribbled in the margin of a ninth century Latin grammar, in which an earnest scribe complains of a hangover (for more fabulous medieval marginalia, check out the delightful Dec. 7 post at anglandicus.blogspot.ie)
Sometimes graffiti is art, not vandalism.
Consider Pierre de Fermat (born in the early 1600s), who one fine day was reading Arithmetica, an ancient Greek text dating back to the year 250. Remember this from high school math class? “In a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.” In other, er, words, x2 + y2 = z2. (It’s so well known, even the Scarecrow blurted it out when given a brain by the Wizard of Oz, although he also got it wrong. But that’s another story.)
As the science journalist Simon Singh has noted, the equation “is not just a nice idea, or a notion that seems to work for most right-angled triangles. It is always true and mathematicians can prove this.” But de Fermat, clearly bored one afternoon, jotted down a new version: xn + yn = zn , where n is any number greater than 2, cannot ever be true. “I have a truly marvellous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.”
Yes, Fermat’s famous Last Theorem was a scribble in the margin of a book. That bit of “vandalism” became one of the most fascinating (and unsolved) mathematical conundrums of all time.
Many other authors are famous for their marginalia: Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace (who added a mustache and fangs to the photograph of author Cormac McCarthy in the book Suttree). Voltaire (who used only the one name as a pseudonym) wrote in the margins of books while in jail, and Sir Walter Raleigh penned his last words in margins before being led to the gallows.
Back in 1844, Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin; this is not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of penciling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”
In a roundabout way, this brings us to the Lennoxville Library’s copy of Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein Or The Modern Prometheus (1818/ 1969, filed in Adult Fiction in the Lennoxville Library). There’s something marvelous about reading the original of a work that has become a part of our collective imagination. And the iconic Frankenstein movie of 1931, it turns out, is vastly different from the book.
Shelley’s tale is a story nestled within a story within a story, told in a series of letters by a failed poet turned would-be northern explorer named Walton. He pens a series of letters to his sister Margaret, discussing his efforts to hire a crew and ship to sail him to the Northern pole. Along the way, they discover a man, half dead, lying on a broken sled in the ice. “His constant and deep grief fills me with sympathy and compassion.”
The nomad’s name is Victor Frankenstein.
He is chasing “a daemon… one who fled from me.” And eventually, he tells his story. This Frankenstein, a scientist of sorts, is not terribly likable: “To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death. I became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body….
“Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses.”
Eventually, he steals and stitches together bits and gives it life. But he is so shocked by his creation that he flees, forsaking this child.
Two years later, the monster finds him, and it has been cruelly abused by others. It is gigantic and ugly, a terrifying horror. And the creature tells Frankenstein of the life to which it was abandoned: “Hateful day when I received life! Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from in disgust?” (The nameless monster is fabulously literate: he has learned to speak French, and has read John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.)
In agony, it has murdered those who despise it, and takes its revenge on Frankenstein by killing his family members, one by one. It taunts Frankenstein, because it cannot gain his love.
This is a wonderful book, but a slow read, because of the long sentences and exposition that was so in vogue 300 years ago. Set aside a good chunk of time to properly appreciate it.
And now, on to what we’ve all been waiting for: A review of the marginalia found in Frankenstein.
The first scribble appears on page 17, where someone wielding indelible ink has marked a paragraph and noted, “worry by writers of being accepted.” The comment is a far too simplistic interpretation of what Shelley has actually written.
On to page 37! Many of the endless scribbles in the book simply restate what the author has said, but without her poetic talent. Blech.
Or here, on page 159, Shelley makes reference to King Charles I. The response? “OK, History major, what does this all mean?” Apparently our scribbler has no access to the Internet, nor to an encyclopedia to answer the question on their own. (Hey, maybe you could use… the library?)
All to say that the comments scribbled in the margins of this book are, frankly, tiresome and obvious.
Don’t ruin the experience of other readers with such writings, please and thank you. Do what you will to your own books, but a library book belongs to all of us, and it’s good to respect your neighbours. Harumph.
The proof for Fermat’s theorem, by the way, was finally found in 1995, some 300 years later. Here’s Simon Singh again: “The Last Theorem was a source of frustration, but it also had a lighter side. In the 1980s a piece of graffiti appeared on New York’s Eighth Street Subway station: “xn + yn = zn , no solutions. I have discovered a truly marvellous proof of this, but I can’t write it down because my train is coming.”
– Eleanor Brown, February 6, 2015