emerson

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!