Do you write in your books?

The cover of Francine Prose's Reading Like a WriterLast time, I talked about how reading Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer made me rethink my principled stance against rereading books. As you may remember, I had stopped rereading books after my daughter was born so that I could focus my precious reading time on new-to-me books. Prose, however, has convinced that some rereading is necessary if I want to use my reading to become a better writer.

That’s not the only reading habit Prose has made me reconsider. I used to have a firm stance against writing in my books as well. Prose is making me rethink that one too.

On page 7, Prose writes:

“I still have my old copy of Sophocles, heavily underlined, covered with sweet, embarrassing notes-to-self (‘irony?’ ‘recognition of fate?’) written in my rounded, heartbreakingly neat schoolgirl print. Like seeing a photograph of yourself as a child, encountering handwriting that you know was once yours but that now seems only dimly familiar can inspire a confrontation with the mystery of time.”

People used to write in their books all the time. Mark Twain’s copy of “The Pen and the Book” is prized by the Newberry Library which houses it not for the publishing advice it contains, but for the marginalia Twain scribbled throughout its pages. In the margins, Twain berated the author, Walter Besant, for daring to suggest that advertising could be used to sell books as if they were “essential goods” like salt or tobacco. He was apparently also irritated by the amount of money people threw at Mary Baker Eddy to write about Christian Science.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Darwin, Nelson Mandela, Jane Austen, and Thomas Jefferson all wrote freely in their books.

In an 2014 editorial for the Sunday New York Times, Andrew Scrimgeour makes a compelling argument that writing in the margins is one of the highest compliments we non-famous author types can pay — as long as we only write in our own books and aren’t defacing library books, of course.

“The jottings we make in the books we own may well be among the highest tributes we pay to authors. They are signs of respect, signs of engagement. What more could a writer hope for?”

Scrimgeour runs through a roster of literary types–each with their own marginalia rules. Some never write in any book. Others write only in nonfiction ones. Still others write freely in every book they’ve ever read.

Reading this I realized that even my principled stance against writing in books, isn’t actually all that principled. After all, I write in cookbooks all the time — notes to my future self about what I’ve tried, how it turned out, and what I might like better. It increases the value of the cookbook for me. I don’t think twice about it. What are cookbooks for, if not to make me a better cook?

Writing in other types of books used to feel disrespectful to me. But that stance isn’t logically consistent. Just as I use cookbooks to become a better cook, I’m reading Prose’s book in an effort to become a better writer and other nonfiction books to become a more informed citizen. I should feel just as free to comment in those books about my reactions to what I’m reading, as I do in noting the precise mix of flours, yeast, and vital wheat gluten I need to keep my wheat bread soft and fluffy. Undoubtedly Prose’s book would be more valuable to me in the future if I could skip straight to those notes, instead of having to spend hours flipping through the book looking for a quote I only half-remembered.

In the past, I have tried to using cards to note passages that resonate with me while I’m reading.  When I fill a card, I tuck it in the pages of the book which inspired it for safe-keeping. The spine of Dinosaur Odyssey by Scott Sampson has cracked from all the cards I’ve crammed into it. The cards scattered like snowflakes when I pulled the book off the shelf to pack it for our recent move to California. I must have spent half an hour figuring out where  all those cards belonged. I wouldn’t have had that particular problem if I’d simply written in the book itself.

Prose’s text threatens to be another book whose spine will crack from all the cards. Surely, if the spine would be at risk anyway, it would be better to hold my one-sided conversation with Prose on the pages themselves?

I still feel guilty about it. But Prose writes in her own books, so I’m going to give it a try.

Marginalia in Francine Prose's Reading like a Writer
I’m only on page 66 and I’ve run out of cards. But there’s more I’d like my future self to remember. Marginalia to the rescue. (Photo: Shala Howell)

What about you? Do you write in your books?

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One comment

  1. I do! Sometimes. Mostly underlining or highlighting, etc.

    I’ve been doing it for years now, for many of the reasons you cited above, but I still feel guilty! For me, it wasn’t a disrespect thing so much as I feel a responsibility to conserve the resources so others can use them (when I give them away or donate them). However, I now just hope that somehow my emphasis and notes might be helpful to the next person. 🙂


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