Write in this book!

The best books start here.

Write in this book!

marginaliaThere are two sorts of people in the world: Those who write in and mark up books; and those who view those of us who do write in books as sacrilegious pigs.

Okay, okay—maybe there are a few other sorts of people. (I’ve never been a fan of that whole “There are two kinds of people” routine, except where it is inarguable: women/men; living/dead; rational people/fans of Glenn Beck.)

Myself, I’ve gone from treating every book as a sancrosanct object (as a boy) to routinely scribbling in books (as an adult). Some I so love that I want to puzzle out how they work, and I buy multiple copies and mark them up (Moore, Munro, Cheever, Konigsburg, others). Some books I find so maddening that I have to immediately vent my hooting disdain (among them recent award-winners and bestsellers—don’t ask). Years later I’ll be flipping through an old copy of something and find an expletive in a margin and think, “Really? Was it that bad?”

But my marginalia is as nothing compared to the marginalia of the greats.

There is a wonderful little piece by Ian Frazier in this week’s New Yorker about the marginalia in books owned by famous writers, among them Nabokov, Coleridge, and Twain—who probably wrote the most entertaining marginalia: “At the end of an unusually exasperating chapter, [he wrote,] ‘A cat could do better literature than this.'”

So writing in books: Bad? Good? A necessary evil? A perversion that must be stamped out? Do you write in your books?

  1. I’ve got to say I find books beautiful, sacred even, even those that aren’t ‘great’ just because of the paper. I sound like a paper worshiper. I used to scribble in books in pencil during the University years and used to cringe when I see pen marks over a book – except if it’s on page one when someone has personalized for someone else. Thanks for this, Michael.

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  2. I even write in library books. Thanks for the laugh (rational people/fans of Glenn Beck).

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  3. YEP! I have been writing in books for a long time: first out of need, as a lit major, then as a lit teacher, then just out of habit.
    Rarely do I read without pen in hand.
    When on a beach even–though then I limit my annotations to symbols: checks for things I like, exclamations, questions marks, etc.
    Lately, no longer teaching, I’ve joined a couple of book clubs. These are particularly challenging for me because few love what I love, and I am occasionally asked to read book club-like books–those novels that are designed with book clubs in mind it seems.
    I am really writing in the margins in these–things like, “Really?!”

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  4. Hello, Michael. Thanks for the post. I too read an article in the NY Times about Twain’s notes in the margins. That is something I started doing in college as an English major. We were encouraged to mark up books. I did make the mistake of marking up my Riverside Shakespeare with an ink pen. Since then, I adhere strictly to pencil. Usually, I underline strong passages or mentions of places or things that really connect with me or baffle me. This comes in handy when you roughly remember something and then pull the book off the shelf years later to flip through and find the scrawled comments. After reading that NY Times article on Twain last month, I thought I really need to up the snark in my comments.

    I was impressed with his ability to make it through an entire book despite the fact that it was a painful plod. I have the tendency to shut the book and move on to something else. One time, Twain sat through a horribly painful piano recital. Most of the people in the room left, but he listened to the whole piece. Later someone asked him why he stayed. He said: “The exquisitely bad is as satisfying to the soul as the exquisitely good. Only the mediocre is unendurable.”

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  5. marginalia is now my favorite word of the week.

    i fall into the “how dare you, you sacrilegious pig!” category. my mother, on the other hand, loves marginalia, saying she enjoys reading the comments of other people almost as much as the what the original author has written.

    she also open my paperbacks wide before reading and thus horribly mutilate the spines.

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  6. Love that Twain quote, JKW! And funny fivecats, I grew up borrowing books from my brother who would invariably flip out when he detected even the tiniest crack in the spine. Which I thought was ridiculous because you can’t read a book unless you crack the spine! As a result of this sibling trauma, I crack spines and write in margins with abandon (though not in library books, Keli, you rebel.)

    Great post, Michael!

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  7. I’ve gone the opposite direction as you–from writing in margins a LOT in college, to not touching them now. This probably has something to do with how I never used those scribbles on texts/novels when I went back to study. But also, as I do more research these days and occasionally buy a research book that someone else has owned–I HATE the scribbles & underlines. I want my own thoughts. :)

    So I withhold the pencil and pull out a sticky note!

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  8. I want so bad to write in books, but I just can’t force my pen hand to do it. It’s like there’s some kind of super force field surrounding the pages. My husband is the exact same way.

    Last Sunday in church the pastor told us to underline a word in our bibles. I took a pen and hovered it over my husband’s precious book (remember force field). Through clenched teeth, my hubby said, “Oh you better not.”

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  9. I don’t currently write in my books (I probably have before) but I have no moral objections to it. I used to write in my Bible & textbooks/other books for college all the time. Novels I generally don’t stop and look for the pen.

    This might be partially because I have horrible handwriting and anything put in margins would be completely worthless to interpret.

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  10. Interesting how many of the commenters were lit. majors (like me) and annotated heavily while at university. I don’t do it much any more; if I like a particular sentence, I write it down in my reading journal, with the proper citation of course. The major reason for not scribbling in the books themselves: Powell’s will not take them back for trade if they have been liberally embellished. And I love my Powell’s trades.

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  11. My husband wrote an entire doctoral dissertation on marginalia found in incunable books, so I have to say I’m in the yes-to-marginalia camp. Besides, I like to see what other people find meaningful in a book. Just yesterday I was admiring the heavy notations in a 100-year-old cookbook.

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  12. I like buying used books and seeing what people wrote in them. I even like it when people underline things, write in margins, etc., in library books, because sometimes a past reader has noticed something that I did not. Every time this happens, I feel like there’s a connection between the readers.

    When it comes to my own books, though, I just feel too guilty to write in them. I’ll hover over the book (it’s the pen that’s trembling, not my hands!), let the ink begin to spill out on the pages, see my clumsy marks soil the beauty of the book… and later that night, the book turns into a zombie and eats me.

    So I generally try not to write in books.

    I do not enjoy being eaten.

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  13. Yes, yes, yes, I write in the margins. I underline, too. And always in pen–I hate writing in pencil. I’ve never been to college so I guess I picked up the habit when I started studying the Bible. Went on from there to write in all margins everywhere.

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  14. GASP! You WRITE in your books?!?!?! Isn’t that . . . like . . . illegal?

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  15. I rewrote the names of the characters in Maxine in the Middle to fit the names of my three children. My middle daughter liked the book much better when she “became” Maxine. As matter of fact, it is her favorite book.

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  16. I actually burned a book once, and you can imagine what kind of uproar that receives! (I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, I’d finished reading it and the book was good but I knew I wouldn’t want to read it again, and it was very cold, and I was bored.) So no, I have no problem writing in books, though I don’t usually and only in pencil if I do. But I do turn down the pages, which annoys some purists…

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  17. The book is simply the vessel.

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  18. Non-fiction/textbook/Bible – yes.

    Fiction – no. Somehow it just feels wrong. Or more accurately, impossible. How could I write a reaction to a world I am currently living in? I just finished The Book Thief, and for the duration of that novel, I lived in Nazi Germany. I could not have been both inside and outside The Book Thief at the same time. Of course, some fiction doesn’t grab me. But if it doesn’t I pass it on unmarked to somebody who might find it a good place to live for a week or so.

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  19. I’m in the same category as fivecats.

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  20. 5 years as a children’s librarian then kids of my own. I can’t be caught setting the example that scribbling in books is okay so I’d have to do it in the dead of night then blame it on goblins if someone saw my notes.

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  21. I grew up in a household that held books sacred, and the idea of writing was blasphemy. My parents would, I suspect, cry if they saw my undergrad copy of Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.

    Like many other commenters, I started marking up novels as a lit. major in college, but since then I find that I only make notes, underline or highlight passages, and so on in non-fiction or religious texts.

    History books I especially like to write in. “This thing the Hittites dealt with sounds just like _____!” My notes are my way of tracking the connections my brain is making between what I already have in my head and what I’m reading.

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  22. I’m with Carrie, though I’ve stopped writing in my Bible. I just prefer clean pages.

    It wouldn’t really occur to me to write in fiction. It’s real or it isn’t. If it isn’t, I’m more likely to throw the book aside in disgust and go verbally rant to someone, thus spoiling their own future reading. :)

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  23. I had a hard time pressing the Sharpie down on the pristine title page of Violet Raines at my first book signing. Write in a book? Why, I never!

    I hated in college when I looked for used text books and found other people’s notes or what they thought to be important passages underlined. I wanted to think my own thoughts, not be distracted by theirs!

    That said, my mom passed on to me my grandma’s cookbooks. Junior loves this. or Good. Took to church potluck. I love reading her notes.

    The only book I’ve ever written in is my bible–when I figure something out, I pen it in immediately!

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  24. I usually don’t write in the margins, but I recently took to underlining brilliant passages in FRAGILE THINGS because I want to be Neil Gaimen.

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  25. Like many here, I learned the incredible freedom of writing in books when I became an English major. Most of my reading today comes from libraries, so I keep copious, scathing notes in a separate, SUPER PRIVATE Excel spreadsheet.

    However: marked-up books still exist on my shelves, and it can be incredibly embarrassing to lend out one on accident.

    When I got engaged, a friend gave me a terrible advice book on relationships, and I scribbled snarky reactions throughout, not just on the advice therein but also on relationships of people I knew, that the examples reminded me of.

    That book will have to be burned.

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  26. I find myself writing more and more in my books these days. I don’t know what that says about me. Hopefully it means I am more careful and interested that I used to be.

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  27. Weirdly enough, I never write in fictional books, but in either fiction, or Greek/Shakespeare plays I write and highlight all over the place. Huh. I’m not really sure why.

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  28. I write my name and a message in a LOT of books. . . oh, wait, that’s not what you mean, Michael. LOL

    I used to write in my books a lot more than I do now, but I still tend to copyedit them. Amazing what mistakes of spelling and grammar find their way into print! I also underline something I want to remember or quote, and usually write the page number on the front page of the book so I can find it again.

    But I have gotten out of the habit of writing extensive comments in the margins, partly from time constraints, partly because it has begun to seem jejeune or mean-spirited of me. Of course I still fling books I hate (or love so much I am jealous of them) across the room which leave “memorial dents” on my walls.

    Jane Yolen

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