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A Person Who Writes In Books

A photograph of marginalia written in 1479

This photo of 1479 marginalia was taken by Philobiblon.

This post is brought to you by a 360 degree reversal in the reading mode of its writer. If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen a tweet I posted a couple of weeks ago about my sudden and compelling urge to write in the book I was reading… by the next day I’d posted another tweet to say I’d gone and done it. I’ve since made notes in two books.

I say ‘sudden compelling urge’ because I have had sudden writing urges before but they’ve never been quite compelling enough for me to actually pick up a pencil – it’s got to be erasable – and change my stance. The strength of it was a bit silly really but then I suppose it was the opposite of how I usually feel.

Others write in books. Many of my classmates at school scrawled all over their poetry books. I did too because I had to but even back then, during the time I wasn’t reading for pleasure, I felt books were… sacred. Not to be sullied. Interestingly I have no problem with other people writing in their books; I believe it’s each to their own, but me and mine? No chance.

The reason I never wanted to was because I’m always worried that a re-read would be dominated by my past thoughts and whilst on the whole that’s no bad thing – interesting, almost, because you’d have definite comparisons there between then and now as opposed to having to remember what you thought – I can be easily distracted, that attention span thing, and I know that when I’ve come across underlined or highlighted text when going through photocopied book extracts while essay planning, I get stuck on those sections that the person before me deemed important. And I always think that while they may be important sections, they might not be in my specific context or – god forbid – I might end up taking a bit more from the source material or friend’s notes than I meant to.

A friend once photocopied a chapter of a book for me that our lecturer had photocopied for her. My friend was effectively presenting me with source material only she had. I felt uncomfortable anyway because I knew that if I used it I’d potentially be writing about things that previously only she could have, but her highlighting had me worried – I didn’t want her own planning to weave its way into mine. Like my reviewing process – read others’ reviews after I’ve written my own – I worried some of her work would creep into mine no matter how much I was aware of the possibility. Once you’ve crossed that border, even if you don’t actually use someone else’s work whether by accident or on purpose… just that worry that you will and the lengths you’ll go to to ensure you don’t can be exhausting and can negatively affect your own work.

Back to writing in books myself – I chose a pencil. I wrote in the whitespace. Emboldened, I progressed to underlining lines, sectioning paragraphs I liked, scribbling everywhere. Once I started I figured I’d write whenever I wanted. In a soft pencil. Very lightly.

Afterwards I was regretful. I’d crossed the line. I could erase the markings but knew it’d be difficult and anyway, it would scuff the pages. This feeling remained for a few hours. The next day, reading a new book, I came to a place where I knew I had to write everything or I wouldn’t be able to continue reading. I did it again.

Here’s the thing – these two books? Two of the shortlisted titles I’m reading as a shadow judge. I suppose it’s different; it certainly feels so. I feel a greater sense of needing to get it right, to remember all my thoughts, to understand the nuances of the texts.

And it’s just easier to have my thoughts – all of them – to hand. I like to make copious notes when reading. I use notebooks, and once I’ve written the review I tend to leave the rest of the notes behind where at some point, when the notebook’s used up, they’ll end up in the shredder. I rarely keep my notes, precisely because I don’t have a place to keep them. I’ve considered a commonplace book but the idea of trying to categorise multi-category notes is daunting. Some books I read are lucky; I store their notes on the computer. Others are lost forever if the thoughts don’t make it into my review, and that’s most of them because if I included them there would be “ah ha!” and “excellent!” and all sorts of other notes and copyright-infringing amounts of text that even I wouldn’t read.

Will I continue? I really don’t know. But I guess under the surface I am a writer in books, or, as I said on Twitter, I’m a Person Who Writes In Books. And I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel comfortable with that but then it’s a lot better than it could be.

I could be using a biro.

Do you write in books?


April Munday

November 23, 2016, 10:30 am

I recently read an essay by Anne Fadiman about people who write in books. She says these are the lovers of books who love them carnally. Strictly speaking, I’m the other kind, although I have been known to write in books, especially when I was a student. If I open up my copy of Montaigne’s essays, for example, it’s got my writing all over it. On the other hand, even my favourite sentence in “East of Eden” isn’t underlined, because I remember it.

In one of my Regency novels a character gives the woman he loves his copy of the Shakespeare sonnets which he has been annotating for years with his feelings for her. His notes would have been in ink.

Fadiman mentions the joy of purchasing a second-hand copy of a book with annotations, because they can show that the book has been loved.


November 23, 2016, 5:21 pm

I really don’t like writing in books. Like you, back at school I did because I was made too, but I always did it in pencil so I could go back and rub it out! If I really feel the need to make a note, I write it on a post it note and stick it in the appropriate page.

Tracy Terry

November 23, 2016, 5:29 pm

Whilst I have copious numbers of post-it notes with my thoughts on the book Im reading written on them or merely marking things I want to remember, words I need to check etc I simply cannot bring myself to actually write in the book in just the same way as I couldn’t bring myself to turn the corner of the page to mark my place.


November 23, 2016, 5:48 pm

It depends on the book. Of course I never write in library books. I’ve read the first two volumes of Proust and scribbled in them like there was no tomorrow. I have a paperback copy of Pride and Prejudice I have read six times and have added notes to each time. It is a wonderful history of my reading of that book. Some books demand to be written in, others not so much.


November 23, 2016, 5:57 pm

Ooo, there are so many interesting things about this post.
In general, I’m not one for writing in books. The exception is when I’m using a book for study purposes (and only if it’s my copy).
It’s only been in recent years that I’ve started reviewing books regularly on my blog. Whether digital or ‘real’, I keep paper and pencil nearby for jotting down page numbers and notes. While accessing highlighted material on the Kindle might not be hard, it would be more difficult to go back and find notes written on the pages of physical books.
As for being influenced by others’ notes, it makes me think of how my daughter always refused to miss class since she never trusted another person’s notes. When it comes to book reviews, I rarely read others before writing my own. After the fact, I’m most often interested in reading negative reviews – to see if/how their thoughts differed from mine.


November 28, 2016, 10:09 am

April: I’m going to have to get the link to that essay if it’s online. I agree that those who write in books are lovers of them; it takes a passion to do it whether you’re agreeing with what you’re reading or not. You talking of your student books brings another element to it – seeing what you wrote years ago, just for that in itself, and also the extras like handwriting changes and so on. Good point about remembering favourite lines. Remembering in this context definitely trumps underlining.

Love that plot point! (I’m going to get to your books.)

Jessica: I think there was one day I used a pen in school because I couldn’t find a pencil. Of course I’ve gone and lost the book now so it hardly matters yet it feels like it does, if that makes sense. Yes, post its! I got some for Christmas last year because the person knew about my problems!

Tracy: Post its are a good alternative! And yes to turning the corner – I find it difficult too. If you could smooth it out later, no problem, but I’ve found that once done you’ll always have the book falling open to that page(s).

Stefanie: I love that, six different ‘editions’ of notes. You get to see your thought process and how you’ve changed over time.

Kelly: Yes, for study purposes writing in them can be the best way. Your notes are easy to find (well, mostly, depending on the page count!) and you don’t have to worry about losing papers etc. I like the highlight function on my Kobo, but writing it out is easier. However, yes, with ebook highlights you can just flick through them without having to worry about missing one. Pros and cons.

Your daughter’s worry is very understandable; you not only have to be willing to trust the notes but also trust the people have the same angle or so on about the subject because they might note things you wouldn’t and miss things you’d find very important. I like reading negative reviews, too. I’ll read both, but I tend to start there, especially if I loved the book!

Laurie @ RelevantObscurity

November 30, 2016, 6:48 pm

“The reason I never wanted to was because I’m always worried that a re-read would be dominated by my past thoughts”

These are EXACTLY my thoughts about it! Since I do reread, I do like to come to each reading fresh.

When I am reading for a review, I write in a notebook. I rarely ever write in a book and if I do its just to make a mark for emphasis (and in pencil), I don’t write words. I write the page number and notes in a notebook.

However, when I am browsing in used book shops I sometimes enjoy the markings of previous owners to see what notes/thoughts they had about a book. But, um, I don’t then actually buy that book and hope I can find a clean copy :)

I think you are brave, though, to have crossed this line, so to speak. It is probably more convenient to write in books than to lug a notebook along with it!



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