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On Writing in Books

February 18, 2010 8 comments

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.