Saturday, October 17, 2009

Why I Write in Books

Scott D. Parker

I find myself in the minority often but I didn’t expect to find myself in the minority with my fellow readers, writers, and bloggers. The culprit was one of the questions in the recent Reading Meme that went around the blogs. Here’s the question and my answer:

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
Frequently. I'll mark passages, either in fiction or non-fiction, I like, mostly to help with my reviews.

Now, in retrospect, the keyword in the question was “horrify.” It should have triggered that little something in the back of my head, that suspicious part you have when you’re answering one of those “Which kind of cake are you?” surveys and you can tailor your answers accordingly so you’ll turn out to be a bunt cake. Alas, at the time, nothing triggered for the simple reason that I write in almost all my books almost all the time, fiction and non-fiction.

I mark passages in fiction that I enjoy and want to remember. I mark lines in ARCs so I can quote them when I write the review. I underline and make notes in my bibles. Non-fiction is especially prone to annotation. I write notes, underline key passages, highlight others, and bracket still others. I don’t really have a system. Those of you who would choose having your fingernails ripped out rather than mark in a book must now consider me doubly blasphemous. Not only do I mark in books but I do so haphazardly. To the gallows, Parker!

You might be wondering why I do this? Truth be told, I’ve been pondering it myself once I saw all the comments from other bloggers and writers who treat their books with reverence. My favorite was from Jeff Pierce of The Rap Sheet: “It’s said that a book looks better after I have read it than it did before.” Don’t get me wrong: there are some books that I do treat with high esteem: my Oxford Illustrated Dickens, my two-volume boxed set of Edgar Allan Poe to name but two. Why do these books get a pass? Not sure. Maybe it’s their shelf appeal.

A case can be made that the reader completes the process the writer began. If a book gets written and no one reads it, what is it? Yes, it’s still a book but it’s not really complete. Writers write to be read. Why else do we write? If you take this statement as truth, then I, as a reader, am at liberty to read a book however I want. For me, I want to write in books. It’s part of the conversation the writer started. I’m just answering back in the age-old dialogue that’ll never end.

Metaphysics aside, the more I thought about it, the more the answer came to me, and I have John Adams to thank. My markings in my books are time capsules. They are signposts along the path of life of reading and learning. If I read a book and mark certain passages, I’ll often date them as well. I enjoy returning to old books and leafing through the pages to read what I wrote five, ten, fifteen years ago. I can remember where I was on that particular day, my life experiences up to that point, and determine whether or not I still agree or have changed my opinion.

My bibles are excellent time capsules. When I inherited my grandfather’s bible, I marveled at all the underlined passages and learned more about him and the way he thought than I did when I spoke with him. Reading is an individual activity, a personal one. You can’t really understand what a person is responding to while reading a book unless they tell you (and it often gets lost in translation) or they mark a book. In his biography of our second president, David McCullough noted that John Adams always marked in his books. The Sage of Quincy would disagree with authors, point out things he liked, and, sometimes, even correct his younger self with a second annotation on the same paragraph as he re-read it later in life. How much more do we know about John Adams the Man because John Adams the Reader wrote in his books.

Once I had the habit of writing in books and realized my own notes were my own personal time capsules, I also came to the conclusion that my notations would be insights into my own thinking for my son when he inherits my books. I’d like to think he’d find some joy in reading David McCullough’s John Adams or one of my bibles with my own thoughts and notes annotated throughout. Maybe he’d learn something about his old man he never knew and smile.


Jay Stringer said...


It's something ive never really thought of doing. Not that i have any boas against it. I love a well worn book, and i carry comic books rolled up in my back pocket.

But i've never written notes in my books. Truth be told, i don't really make any notes at all when i read.

It'll be interesting to see what other people's habits are.

Barbara Martin said...

I don't as a rule write in books, though I do make pencil marks in the margin near a line that has caught my attention as being important. Later the pencil marks are erased once I have finished with that particular book, especially if it ends up as a donation to the local library.

The only book I have made notations in is my bible, which I intend on keeping until I pass over.

Scott, you've presented an interesting viewpoint on writing in books as something to pass on to others.