On Writing in Books

Last week, I talked a bit about the value of what I call active reading. One of the things I mentioned was that readers — particularly students of literature — shouldn’t be afraid to write in their books (assuming, of course, they’re not library books). In response, a couple of people, both on my blog and in my classes, said that they couldn’t bring themselves to write in books. While I respect that position and have been known to feel that way myself quite frequently, I’d also like to make an argument in favor of writing in books.

Needless to say, there are some good reasons for not writing in books. One reason my students frequently cite is that they might not be able to sell their books back to the bookstore if there’s writing in them. It’s tough to argue with them other than to say that knowing college bookstores like I do, there’s very little likelihood that they’ll get much money for their books either way.

A second argument I’ve heard, though perhaps not in so many words, is that books are somehow “sacred,” that writing in a book is akin to defacing a work of art. My guess is that this attitude is, historically speaking, rooted in two ideas. The first is that books were at one time, before mass production, very hard to come by and hence inherently valuable. The second is that if a family owned a book in the United States, it was probably a Bible, so books were literally sacred. These two theories are sheer speculation on my part, but my thinking is that our hesitation to write in books is a holdover from a time when we had more compelling reasons not to write in books.

My response to the idea that books are sacred may come as a shock to some people who know me, especially since I’m an English teacher and I also fancy myself a writer: There’s nothing special about a book. Unless it’s a collector’s item like an autographed first edition, any book you’re holding in your hand at any given moment is likely one of thousands of copies just like it. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, like maybe a particular copy of a book has sentimental value because someone special gave it to you, but for the most part, a book is not a snowflake.

If you’re still hesitant, consider the fact that marking up books will put you in good company. Writers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Herman Melville were known to be voracious annotators of books, as was Ralph Waldo Emerson. According to a brief piece on marginalia on the Harvard library website,

Marginalia provide unique records of the reader’s experience. Offering insights into how and why a reader reads, marginalia take many forms. These range from glosses on difficult words or passages and lengthier notes on the meaning of a text, to illustrations and personal marks used to denote passages of particular interest. While marginalia are often highly systematic, they are also as individualistic: every reader’s engagement with a text is unique. Marginalia shed light on the mental, emotional, and intellectual process of reading, as well as changing historical patterns of reading practice.

In terms of your own reading, years from now, you might return to a book that you’ve annotated and be reminded of where you were mentally and emotionally the last time you read it.

Finally, I think that discouraging people from writing in books is akin to saying that a book is the final authority on a given subject. In other words, it’s like saying you can’t talk back when the fact is that you can talk back to a book. I’d go so far as to argue that you should talk back, that the best and most fruitful reading experiences are those in which you feel like you’re engaged in a dialogue — and writing in the margin is one way to have that dialogue. Along these lines, I’ve heard some readers say that a good book is like a good friend. If this is the case, what kind of friendship is it if the conversation is only moving in one direction — if the book does all the talking and all you ever do is listen?

But like I said, I understand the reluctance to write in books. It’s a taboo activity to say the least, so let’s start with a small experiment:

  • Buy an inexpensive copy of your favorite book at a used bookstore.
  • Find a quiet place where the two of you can be alone.
  • Whip out your pen, and see what happens next.

Who knows? It might feel dirty at first and a little obscene. But over time, you might grow to like it!

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27 comments

  1. I am with you on this 100%. I am a big proponent of writing in books, and I’ve always found it kind of funny when my students react with shock or horror whenever I hand them a photocopy of an excerpt from one of the books (awkward phrasing, but I’m still haven’t had any coffee).

    The way I see it, is that annotating my books gives me a chance to argue with the author, make connections, work through my thought processes, etc… basically, it allows me to develop a relationship with the book that surpasses the somewhat passive role of reader. Like you wrote, it allows me to have a dialogue with the book, seeing that hopping a plane and knocking on the author’s door isn’t very convenient.

    My daughter sees me doing that so often (I don’t think i could read without a pen in my hand) that I saw her writing in one of her books the other day and asked what she was doing. She looked at me as if I was crazy and said “Reading, of course!” Mind you, she’s three and does not read. I loved it.

    And that’s a great quote, by the way. I have to share it with my students to get them to shake off that terrible lesson they can never write in their books.

    Have a great Monday.

    1. That’s a great story about your daughter… She’s very fortunate to be growing up in a home where books matter and reading is a joy! And I like your point about arguing with the author. I most frequently find myself writing in margins when I disagree with what an author has to say. At least, that’s when some of my most colorful language comes out!

  2. I always write in pencil then if I have to I can erase and sell on. Recently I have started to highlight in colour after all I bought the book to use and I will keep them for reference and maybe years later I can look back and see how far I have evolved in my writing/English etc.

  3. I’m a librarian and in the collections I work with, some dating back hundreds of years, the annotations are often more interesting than the texts themselves. So I am all for writing in books for the sake of history if nothing else!

    1. I agree Zaddyman. That’s part of the attraction of purchasing pre-loved books too, there always a chance of finding annotated copies.

  4. Have met many people who refuse to write in books for the very reason you cite. Although I get that, I have no problem annotating my copy of a book. It’s the only way I can go back to something that spoke to me. If I didn’t make a note, I’d never be able to find that thought again.

  5. THANK YOU! I have gotten so much crap over my life for not being afraid to take books in the bath, outside, on the roof, break their spine a bit so that I can read them scrunched under the covers.

    Actually annotation was also done way back in the days when books were singular scripts. Students were practically expected to write in them. I had a Medieval History class which required the whole class to read from one book in the library and leave at least one annotation a week with an observation, expansion, or challenge. It was really interesting!

  6. I was brought up Never to mark in a book. Books were hard to come by in our family, honored, and marking in them akin to the sin of killing. Thus even in adulthood, I would not mark in them. Sometime in my middle years, I encountered a college student with a novel she studied for class. She had a pen attached, marked it like crazy, enjoyed the process. I thought: I’m an adult and can do what I want. I have been marking, gleefully, passionately, ever since. Some of my spiritual books have rainbow colors, giving testimony to my growth, like the rings of a tree. I consider marking in my books a sacred process, an honor to the author and the world at large. I am fascinated when I happen upon a used book, to see what the previous reader enjoyed marking.

  7. I too am a big supporter of marginalia, although I prefer writing notes and highlighting in paperbacks — there are some old, leather-bound editions I would hate to mark up. But I think writing while reading is an imperative part of the analytic process and a major part of being an attentive reader. My mother is a librarian, and surprisingly, she always encouraged it as well.

  8. Great post. I am a big supporter of writing in margins. Unfortunately I also have to admit that with few exceptions I don’t do it. For me it was a combination of two things: Growing up in a big family and the public school system. With growing up in a big family the books that we did own were typically shared between my five siblings and myself. And if one of us wrote in the margins then all of us would and eventually the book would be more scribbles and writings then readable text.

    The public school system is another big culprit and probably more of a reason why I don’t write in margins. Twelve years of constant chiding and reinforcement designed to make the textbook last longer and in decent condition by teacher and faculty. The penalties for writing in a school book were severe and beaten into us from the begining of our school experience. So it isn’t surprising that most people have a hard time writing in books. Not to mention I was of the generation that most of my fiction was from libraries, particularly the school library. And if the teachers were bad, you have no idea how scarey my librarians could be if you damaged a book.

    Luckily for me I am slowly breaking myself of the habit. Occasionally needing something like this to remind me that I own this book and if I want to write in it then I can.

    Thanks Marc!

  9. It’s not so much that I feel like I’m desecrating a work of art by writing in a book, it’s more that I’m somewhat obsessive-compulsive when it comes to my home library. I try not to dog-ear pages, crease the spines, etc. Drives my wife nuts. If she asks to read one of my books, I have a long list of conditions she must adhere to.

    I do, however, take notes when I ready . . . but I jot thoughts and observations down in a notebook.

    1. Good point… I wonder if something similar might happen with e-readers someday in the distant future. I imagine children on moon colonies saying, “This was my great-grandfather’s Kindle, and his original notes and highlights are still on every file!”

  10. I can tell how much I loved a book by how much ink I left there. Ink=love. For me, reading what I thought about a book is much better than reading my old journals (which are often tedious and irritating). Btw, I am working my way through your short pieces and wish there was a way to comment (aka write in the margin) there. Very good stuff.

    1. Thank you! And I understand your point about the difference between marginalia and journal writing. My own journal is filled with statements like, “Went out to lunch. Had a sandwich.” Not exactly compelling reading. At the very least, the notes I’ve written in margins have an engaging context.

  11. In spite of being taught not to “hurt” a book (write in it, bend its pages, open it “too far,” take off its cover, etc.) I don’t have a problem doing those things if I own the book. If I’ve borrowed it I treat it like precious shared treasure it is.

    It’s interesting to hear opinions about this! Great Post!

  12. not exactly sure how i stumbled upon your blog, but i am glad i did. yes, i absolutely agree with you. i remember the first time that i wrote in a book….there was a certain kind of thrill involved. waiting for someone to come reprimand me for what i had just done. haha.

    thank you for taking the time to stop by my blog and even liking some of my posts. it means a lot. so, i thank you again. cheers. amy.

  13. I just read “My Life as an Abomination” and could identify with the chaos and disillusionment. I’m not quite as brave as you yet- I’ve written a lot of stuff but haven’t broadcasted it all. I did however do a graduation reading of my story of being molested as a child, and I never thought I could go through with it.

    I love your voice- the tone is angry, sarcastic, but you don’t “say it out loud.” You don’t have to, which is something I’m learning in my own writing. Just telling the story does the trick. My father calls it recycling garbage into art.

    1. Thank you! I like to think of it in the terms Willa Cather used: the power of fiction comes from the inexplicable presence of the thing not named. (I’m probably get some of the words wrong, but the basic idea is that the most compleeling fiction doesn’t “say it out loud,” to borrow your phrase!)

  14. On a creepy but fascinating note, I feel like it’s akin to talking to dead people (if the annotator is dead already).

    I rummage through secondhand book stores, and it’s always a happy surprise if there are insightful annotations on the margins. At one time, I even fancied hunting for the person who wrote the annotations — another creepy notion.

    On the other hand, it could be the missing link to finding something wonderful — like a love affair — if I did go into a hunt for the annotator.

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