Sunday, November 30, 2008

Book Review: Darwin’s Marginalia

I'll be posting this book review on Amazon, but here it is, too:

As I’ve learned through this class, Darwin was a man with an agenda, and one devised at an early age. Now, I question the motives of “the man who walk[ed] with Henslow” (was he simply using his daily outings with the cleric-botanist as a way to infiltrate the close circle of Cambridge scientists?). What about Darwin’s instance that his grandfather Erasmus was of no influence on him? Certainly, I’ve come to read Darwin’s autobiography and letters with fresh eyes, no longer trusting words written by him for the eyes of another.

Now that Darwin seems calculating to me, I appreciate the Herculean effort of Mario A. Di Gregorio and his assistant N. W. Gill. Their 895-page volume Charles Darwin’s Marginalia is a find, largely because it captures what Darwin had no intention of publishing — his handwritten notes jotted in fourteen-hundred books from his personal library. (A subsequent, still-to-be-published book, is set to document the marginalia in Darwin’s journals.) The authors, who personally deciphered Darwin’s scrawl, track his notes line by line to the original text. They also include a “conceptual guide to annotations.”

Darwin was clearly a note taker, and oftentimes his humor, frustration, and cattiness come through. In Robert Chambers’ Vestiges, Darwin sketched out his approach for discussing evolution (“higher” and “lower” forms of life) and even wrote “Rubbish!” along side a line. In many respects, Darwin’s comments illustrate a sort of no-holds-barred conversation with authors — they comment and he responds. Often, he writes his personal view and how he would present his take to future readers (“remember to avoid...“).

Marginalia, though out of print, is also valuable for judging which writers and subjects were of particular interest to Darwin. By far, Charles Lyell is the most heavily annotated author (xxxiii). As a scholarly work (complete with a very elaborate system of abbreviations and symbols), this book is wonderful — a rare view into the occasional outbursts of a great, calculating mind. My only request is really that of a novice student: an overview that more simply considered the themes that can be culled from the tome.

Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin’s Marginalia. [Edited by] Mario A. Di Gregorio with the assistance of N. W. Gill. Volume 1. (Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, 783.) lxii + 895 pp., figs., indexes. New York/London: Garland Publishing, 1990. $102.

Laura Moorhead

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