Why I Write in My Books (& You Should Too)


David Foster Wallace’s copy of Don DeLillo’s ‘Players’

Rosie Featherstone

What do your books look like after you have read them? Are you a puritan, someone who considers a dog-eared page book blasphemy? Or do your books go through a form of reconstructive surgery; highlights, scribbled notes, and page markers colouring the initially black and white surface. Most people feel strongly one way or the other. I am here to state my case for the scribblers, the ones who leave their own personal mark on their books. People who still feel their books with be improved with further editing.

The practice of writing in books is called marginalia, and many people across the internet are in favour of it. Steve Leeson in the Huffington Post points out that physical books may soon be a thing of the past – his rally cry for scribbles is tinged with the urgency that soon physical print books may not exist. In a reddit comment feed on the subject, one redditor urges that “books are supposed to be lived in” and is backed up by lines of supportive comments. Another commenter says that they “cringe at writing in books”, as they were “raised to avoid it”. Books are “sacred” to them. I have often found that people are raised on one side or another, the treatment of books taught at the same times as “please” and “thank you”.

I’m sure that books are equally as “sacred” to each group. For us marginalia experts, it is important that our personality changes the book. A book can become a time capsule of the time we read it, should we want it to. For me it goes further, a pristine book is usually not a good thing. The only pristine books on my shelf are ones I haven’t read (an embarrassingly large number) or ones I didn’t enjoy. There have been books in which I have made such personal notes that they have become a diary of sorts, books which I now cannot lend out to friends as I usually would. Roxanne Gay’s essays are among these, A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes. In these cases marginalia became a sort of therapy

For puritans, a book is an object to be cared for. To crack the spine in multiple places, to let the bottom left hand corner slide into bathwater and then dry in ripples is, to them, proof that its owner didn’t care enough to take the steps to treat the book properly.

I write in my books because it means my thoughts have in some small way, changed the text. There are, admittedly, some books I wouldn’t write in, like my copy of Alice in Wonderland from 1890. But I love looking at the title page which bears the name of the books first owner, proudly stamped in purple ink. Gladys Stedman’s micro marginalia has made the book more personal and I hope that maybe one day my scribblings will be seen in a similar way.

Categories: Literature, Print & Publishing

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