May 12th – The Festival of Marginalia

Buentoille is a very textual city; literacy is prized and printed media have been going strong for many hundreds of years, showing no sign of faltering or being superseded. Beneath Ranaclois hill the Hidden Library stretches for miles, an old labyrinthine set of tunnels and salt mines filled with books; the City is built on literature. For Buentoillitants, writing is one method of immortality, and if you can’t write an entire book, there are other ways for you to stamp your existence into the world.

Today, at the Surface Reading House a small exhibition of books and other written materials will be held. At first glance there is no linking subject between the fifty-or-so books laid out on the angled reading benches, especially commandeered for today, but at closer inspection one might realise that they all contain marginalia of some sort; doodles, drawings and annotations. The usual wall decorations explaining the proper use of books (‘NO EATING OR DRINKING IN THE READING HOUSE,’ ‘DO NOT DRAW ON, ANNOTATE, OR IN ANY OTHER WAY MARK THE BOOKS: USE THE PROVIDED DOODLE PADS’) are replaced today with large, blown-up photographs of exactly what they forbid.

The festival has been going on for some time. It began in 1756 when scholar Burstan Swen decided that the marginal illustrations in the old illuminated manuscripts that they were finding with some frequency in their studies deserved to be exhibited in their own right. Since then, however, the festival has taken on numerous other interpretations, with many scholarly debates about what forms of marginalia are considered valuable, or even can be gifted the title of marginalia. Swen set up the Buentoilliçan Coterie for the Appreciation of Marginal Illustrations, which still runs the exhibition at the Surface Reading House to this day, its small, selective membership curating the space according to their current tastes.

Things have moved on somewhat since the eighteenth century, but the Coterie still makes a point of including a large number of illuminated manuscripts in their selection. From these manuscripts a number of pages will be picked out and bookmarked for the exhibition-goers, in which painted people make lurid gestures, strange chimerical creatures joust and trick each other. Everyday animals are turned on their head in action; a fierce wolf kindly cradles a baby, a rabbit hunts a hunting dog. Social hierarchies are turned upside-down too; a peasant sits on a throne, her feet propped up on the back of a king, a lascivious monk ogles the behind of a washerwoman. Any books which are considered too old and fragile will instead have a photograph taken and placed on the walls. In order to be considered ‘proper’ marginalia none of these images may relate to the text itself in any way, yet other restrictions that the Coterie once had are now wiped away.

Pressure from competing exhibitions seems to have had the greatest effect in forcing the Coterie to include more modern works in their collections. In 1839 a group of archivists, curators and artists who were denied entry to the Coterie set up their own group, the Buentoilliçan Open Group for the Appreciation of Transformative Marginal Markings, which exhibited on the same day other forms of marginalia, such as annotated university books, edited manuscripts, defaced political posters, the original copy of Jina Jeert’s Message from the Margins, the famous long-form poem that is written over (and interacts closely with, in a pseudo-editorial style) a copy of My Neighbour’s Daughter, a genre-defining work by Olivia Simine. The Open Group’s definition of ‘proper’ marginalia states that the additional markings must in some way transform the original text, bringing new meaning to the table.

As previously stated, the Coterie have adapted their selection process over the years, and now written marginalia is included, if it is considered valuable enough. Their written exhibits are usually in some way connected to famous folk, and could be, for example, their crayon childhood scribbles in a family book, or a blasphemous shopping list written in a copy of the Sanctotemporal Index, the religious text of the Chastise Church. In another instance, the Coterie exhibited a coffee stain in a book which had been outlined with pen; it was thought to be the first evidence of coffee in the City. Yet despite this there have been a number of public disagreements between the two groups in the past, and instances where the exhibits have been in some way ‘sabotaged’ by the other side, who choose to add their own, new marginalia to the texts, in some instances irreparably damaging a text that they perceive as worthless, when the other side sees enormous value in it.

It is a well known saying in Buentoille that ‘in war we are all artists,’ or put more simply, where there is conflict there is inevitably art. As such, marginalia has become fertile ground for the creation of new art, specifically in reference to the two groups, albeit not usually as aggressive or destructive as the marginalia they create is. Today (and also throughout the year in general) a number of artists both conceptual and visual will attempt to add a piece of their work to a text in the Hidden Library, in the hopes that it will eventually be picked up by one of the groups. The librarians are empowered to confiscate any drawing implements as a result. The works they produce are inventive and at times nefarious; in 1987 the Coterie exhibited a faked old illuminated manuscript which had previously been a simple text before Yeran Stau added her careful, historically accurate paintings to the margins.

Artists have occasionally hosted their own, separate, exhibitions as well: in 1993 Malphos Draen showed How I Passed My Degree, an extensive collection of university textbooks which had been annotated by other students in the past, often giving valuable insight into the text. Draen’s own writing can be seen next to each annotation in bright red pen, rating and commenting upon its usefulness. A number of facetious or banal marginal scrawlings (‘this makes no sense…’ ‘V. interesting,’ ‘man, I hate this writer!’) are labelled ‘unhelpful – try harder next time,’ or simply given a ‘1/10’ rating, whereas other, more insightful annotations are praised, built upon, given high ratings.

Both the exhibitions are open all day today, and to get a full idea of the history and art of marginalia in Buentoille, it is recommended that you visit both. If you do wish to do so, ensure that you wash off the hand stamps they give you at the door before you visit the other exhibition or you will be refused entry. The Hidden Library would like to stress that any deliberate destruction or defacement of public property will be dealt with harshly.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of Unknown Vows
  • The Festival of Friendly Birds
  • Municipal Mutual Understanding and Tolerance Day