If you’re like me and use the margins in books for commentary (‘Interesting idea.’ or ‘author is nuts!’), cross-references (‘see also Book X by M. Malaprop.’), and comparisons (e.g. ‘cf. p.58.’), then you might also share my frustration: In many, if not most books, the margins are just too small.
Compare this fifteenth-century mise-en-page with a mass-market twenty-first-century book. Look at those margins. The book on the left is just begging to be written in (not now because it’s valued at tens of thousands of dollars, but you get the idea); the book on the right has reluctant and emaciated margins.
Now there is an economic incentive — or imperative — for making the margins smaller: smaller margins equal less paper, and paper doesn’t grow on trees (at least not free ones), but the margins are not where corners should be cut.
Margin: From Latin marginis, genitive of margo (edge, brink, border, margin). From the late fourteeth century, margin was used to describe the space between a block of text and the edge of the page.
For me the margins serve three purposes: First aesthetic, in that they border the text, give it room to breathe, they define the text block. Margins are designed. They are not or should not be what’s left over; second (practical or ergonomic): The shape of books, their size, is dictated by the shape and size of their readers. Books aren’t a meter wide, because, even if we were blessed with the armspan of a wingspan of a Golden Eagle, they still wouldn’t be very practical or readable. Type is the size it is because of the length of our arms and the power of our eyes. The outer margins, then, are the handles, and they should accommodate thumbs of all sizes, and they must be broad enough that the venerable text is protected from those soiled thumbs of all sizes. But it’s not only the outer margins that are dieting; the inner margins in many books are too narrow, and this is especially a problem for many so-called perfect bound books that generally (depending on the page count, weight of the paper, and material used in the construction of the cover) don’t open flat. One ends up almost breaking the spine in an effort to read the text that runs into the gutter or inner margins.
A typographically claustrophobic page puts me on edge, has me hurrying through the text. Add a little serene whitespace and I’m in my hammock on a beach, sipping a cocktail — typographically speaking.
Third: the conversational margin(alia). Generous margins permit — perhaps even elicit — a conversation between author and reader.
Perhaps fifty per cent of the character and integrity of a printed page lies in its letterforms. Much of the other fifty per cent resides in its margins. — Robert Bringhurst
Perhaps I’m singing to the wrong choir. Perhaps I’m singing to a choir that no longer sings, that longer exists. Perhaps no-one wants to write in the margins? Has the margin died?