Home > On Reading > On Writing in Books

On Writing in Books

Growing up, I was taught that books are precious objects that we do not make any marks in.  Of course, most of our books were borrowed from the library, so this made perfect sense.

Then university came, along with my two very text-heavy majors–American History and English and American Literature.  I was encouraged to mark up my books, both the primary texts of my history courses and the literature of my English courses.  At first I was hesitant, using post-it notes stuck to the pages to mark my ideas.  After the course was over, I’d remove the post-it notes, leaving just a few highlighted passages.

Along came the year when I took two courses in a row that taught Paradise Lost.  The first course was about heresy in history and literature (freaking amazing class, dudes).  The second was on the Western Canon.  I opened my copy of Paradise Lost in Western Canon and found myself devastated that all of my heresy observations were gone.  Gone and never to return.  To this day I wish I had the notations I made during the exquisite heresy lectures.  Nothing taught me the vast possibilities in good literature like approaching Paradise Lost in these two different manners did.  And nothing showed me better the value of writing in a book.

My experience reading isn’t just for shits and giggles, as the saying goes.  I learn things about myself, about the world.  My perceptions and ideas flux and change.  There are the books that I read as a teen that I’ve re-read in my 20s, and I’ve wished that I could see on the page my reaction to the writing as a teenager.

The experience of reading a word or a phrase and having it strike you.  Of wanting to underline it.  Of wanting to note what it means to you right then.  Expand this to include notations of things you’ve learned in relation to this word or phrase, such as the fact that you googled it and discovered it was dangerous for the author to write such a thing at the time.  Or even just the definition of a word you didn’t know.

I know many people think it sullies a book to write in it, but I think it expands the book.  I know people who are disgusted if they check out a book from the library and it’s written in, but I find that to be a wonderful treasure.  I love seeing how someone else reacted to the same book.  Someone who I will never know beyond the fact that they were so moved by a passage that they felt the need to write “omg!!” alongside it or that they knew so much about Greek mythology that they noted which goddess a passage is referring to.

Reading should be interactive, and books are necessarily a part of that.  When I die and people clean out my personal library, I want the copies of my books to show the wear and tear that comes from truly interacting with the books you love.  I want them to be worn from multiple readings and covered with notations and highlighting made in different colors throughout the course of my life.  I want my books to reflect the impact that they’ve had on me, so I’ll continue to write in them.  Even if it means that when I decide in my minimalist way to let a book go that I have a more difficult time finding someone to swap with.

  1. February 18, 2010 at 11:42 am

    I love borrowing my dad’s books for just this reason. I love to see what struck him when he was reading it. It’s like we’re almost discussing it even though he’s 700 miles away. It’s hard for me to mark in my books (I’ve done the post-it thing too!) but I do it occasionally, especially for school work.

    • February 18, 2010 at 1:28 pm

      Aw, that’s so sweet! I was always jealous of my friends in college who used their parents’ old books for their classes. It’s such a nice inter-generational connection!

  2. February 18, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    I love your argument, almost makes me want to write in a book….but my ocd will never allow it!! I write notes but just not on the book 🙂

    • February 18, 2010 at 1:30 pm

      Hehe, oh to each her own, I just felt the urge to explain why I write in my own books/don’t mind reading books that have been written in, since a lot of people don’t want used books with writing in them.

  3. February 18, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    I can see why marginalia is interesting, but it usually bugs me and distracts me from what I’m reading. I’m sure part of this is contrary, as one of my professors didn’t know how we could possibly understand what we were reading unless we wrote in our books and I always like to prove people wrong, but I really just prefer it not to be there.

    • February 18, 2010 at 1:31 pm

      Hah! I tend to have a contrary reaction to things too, which is why I held out from writing in my books for so long in college. My parents always said the most sure-fire way to get me to do something was either to tell me not to do it or tell me to do the opposite, so I guess writing in the margins must really suit me since I did it after all. 😉

  4. February 22, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    My father is both an English professor and a hyperactive marginalia writer, and I used to borrow his books for classes (both in high school and college) and spend a ton of time trying to decipher his handwriting. He also did an interesting thing (which may be a good compromise for people who don’t like to “sully the pages”) and made notations, such as lists of page numbers on which a certain motif appeared, in the blank pages at the end of the book. I myself spent a lot of time scribbling in text- and other books, although admittedly they were mostly snarky comments and not the stuff of great literary reflection. However, I was known in class as the girl who could get you the page number of a text reference fastest, due to my obsessive marking system (in which male, female, race, class, religion, etc. all had their own little symbols). The one downside is that this made my academic books in particular harder to sell back to used bookstores and/or purists. And since I annotated even the books I hated, I still have a bunch of real losers on the shelf.

    • February 23, 2010 at 8:39 am

      Oh man, I would love to see your dad’s books! They must be so much fun.

      I know, I have issues finding people to swap my books with sometimes due to the writing in the margins. We should start our own swapping website just for margin writers!

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: