There may be no fiercer turf war in literary society than the preservation of a book’s pristine quality.
Seriously, those Oxford comma folks have nothing on this debate.
To write in, dog ear, markup, and annotate the books you read and love—or to carefully respect and honor the delicate spine and pure-white paper … that is the question.
I personally have been, and will always be, a contributor to the art of marginalia. Comments, symbols, highlights, underlines—they are all in there. Being able to mark important areas and note brief thoughts on what I’ve read are an essential part of understanding and interpreting what I’ve read.
That isn’t the case for everyone, though. In fact, some people get downright feisty about it.
I have not deeply considered how out-of-place it might seem to be a person who writes regularly in books.
Sure, when I was a kid, I was told by parents and adults who had to protect their possessions from my childish curiosity that it is not OK to color in and draw all over books that I was given.
(Which brings up an important point for the rest of this discussion: I’m talking about writing in your own books. If you are borrowing books from someone else or reading publicly shared books (like from a library), then obviously don’t write in them! I wouldn’t think I have to mention that, but companies have to tell us not to use toasters in the bathtub, so that’s where we are as a society these days …)
That delicate sensibility about books and their precious nature possibly ties back to those chastisements from our youth about protecting property by not being a snot-nosed brat who scribbles all over stuff.
Or you are a book collector looking to keep your books in mint condition (though marginalia can actually increase a book’s value—more about that below!), so the thought of writing on the pages can choke your heart up into your throat.
So when I saw British author Matt Haig send out this tweet, I was curious.
I am all for defacing books you love. Dog ears. Spine creases. Underlines. Highlights. Margin notes. Doodles. Whatever. It’s graffiti of the soul. Books aren’t sculptures in MOMA. Books are defaced trees. They are there to be touched and scrawled on and interacted with and loved.
— Matt Haig (@matthaig1) May 13, 2018
It turned out he was commenting on some replies he had gotten after sharing his glee over a picture someone had uploaded of their own writing in one of his books. Apparently, many in the Twitterverse had opinions on such actions. (Shocker …)
Something about the beautiful way he had described the simple act of writing in a book made me think of the children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco.
For those unfamiliar with the tale, it is sort of a predecessor to Toy Story about the conversations between toys in a nursery and their relationship to the children who own them.
So I shared the sage advice from the oldest toy to the velveteen rabbit with Matt:
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are real?”” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
– The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams Bianco
Cue the sobs, right?
In the context of this moment, I realized the same thing applies to books. When we really love a book, we read it again and again. The spine loses its glue from repeated opening and closing, the pages lose their crispness from being turned again and again, and we might even write notes or underline our favorite bits.
Similar to our favorite toys from childhood, our favorite books should be possessions that are so loved, they might just be ugly to anyone else. We’ve worn their outsides and smushed their insides, but we keep coming back to them. Even after we’ve played with our new flashy toys, these ones are the steadfast standbys.
And when a book is loved enough? Well, then it becomes real. It is unforgettable. It is cherished. It lives in an age of timelessness.
The modern argument is that when you write in a book, or read it again and again until its spine is broken and its pages are folded, you don’t value it.
Now, I say modern because this really is a 20th and 21st century sentiment.
Throughout the 1800s, the practice of writing notes and commentary throughout books was much more common. Famed thinkers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Adams, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Darwin were all margin writers.
There’s even a name for the resulting annotations: marginalia (or apostils if you are feeling French-ually influenced today). They are exactly what you’d expect from their definition: marks made in the margins of written material.
Which is to say, it doesn’t matter what the marks are (words, symbols, illustrations, etc.). When you are writing outside the provided text of a document, you are contributing to this centuries-old thinking custom.
As I said, with the onset of preservation and snotty people deciding that only perfectly maintained items carry any value, we’ve seen a rapid decline in the use of margin writing. That’s not even including the changes that eReaders have brought.
But it isn’t a practice that just died with the turn of the 19th to 20th century. In an excerpt from his World War II-era collected letters, author and broadcaster C.S. Lewis explains his process for collecting his thoughts and observations on what he is reading—that this exercise in annotation is the only way for him to enjoy a book thoroughly.
To enjoy a book like that thoroughly I find I have to treat it as a sort of hobby and set about it seriously. I begin by making a map on one of the end-leafs: then I put in a genealogical tree or two. Then I put a running headline at the top of each page: finally I index at the end all the passages I have for any reason underlined. I often wonder—considering how people enjoy themselves developing photos or making scrap-books—why so few people make a hobby of their reading in this way. Many an otherwise dull book which I had to read have I enjoyed in this way, with a fine-nibbed pen in my hand: one is making something all the time and a book so read acquires the charm of a toy without losing that of a book.
–The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 2, C.S. Lewis
More recently, author David Foster Wallace has become one of the greatest modern representatives of the movement. In the later years of his career, he is said to have retreated into a bit of a self-imposed hermitude, reading voraciously and scribbling all over the tomes he was consuming.
If these thinkers and writers and brilliant people were writing in their books, then why aren’t you?
It should go without saying that if you own a book that Charles Darwin or Sylvia Plath jotted down their own thoughts in, you are sitting on some serious collector’s cash.
The more famous the jotter, the more the book will be worth.
There’s a rather obscure book from the 19th century called The Pen and the Book about how to make a profit in publishing. The book isn’t that great, and thus isn’t well-known, except for the copy at the Newberry Library, in which Mark Twain engages in a marginalia argument with the author about how foolish his book and premise were, based on Twain’s own rather successful run at publishing.
In many book collections that feature marginalia, however, the notoriety of the defacer is secondary to the content.
Marginalia notes, especially when they are not from experts or celebrities, can tell us what “real readers” think and how they were affected by a piece of writing. They are often more valued by research projects and in academia for their insights. What you write in your university textbook now might be sociology gold in the year 2247.
You can actually check out a huge curation of early European marginalia in the Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe, an international collaboration among the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University, the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at UCL, and the Princeton University Library.
Imagine digging into centuries-old copies of a book and treating it like you would an archaeological dig, sifting through each and every character and mark to learn what it was and how it impacted the world. It is a fascinating study into the culture, times, and conversations surrounding such a work.
That’s all well and good, you may be thinking, but how do you actually go about writing in books in a way that is productive and useful?
First off, I’ll caveat the upcoming advice with the same warning label I give most advice I dole out: Whatever you read here may help you create or add to your marginalia system, but it isn’t the only way to practice writing in books.
If you want to get the most from this exercise, then you need to do what works for you. Since I am not you (at least not the last time I checked), I cannot tell you exactly what that is.
But I can tell you some different ways to take notes and make annotations in your books that will enhance your comprehension and experience. In other words, it will make you a better reader.
I didn’t say anything about reviews here, and that is because I am ambivalent about reviews. Most reviews aren’t really useful for your own understanding, and often they are not even close to your real opinion. You write them because either you are trying to be nice or trying to be mean. Truthful reviews are difficult writing, and most of us don’t put in that much effort.
Just from that handful of bullets and prompts, you can see how these types of notes not only help you, but give an entirely different life and dimension to a piece of writing.
Yet often after we’ve produced our marginalia, we close the book and walk away.
How sad is that?
The obvious solution here is that you need to take your marginalia out of the book and into your world.
There are a bunch of different ways you can do this.
As a road warrior, most of my literary collection over the past decade has been purchased and consumed on a number of Amazon Kindle devices. I imagine this is becoming more and more prevalent as the digital book format continues to grow in popularity and use.
What you might not realize is that you can actually access every highlight and notation you have ever made in a Kindle book online.
Go to: https://read.amazon.com/kp/notebook and sign into your Amazon account.
Voila! Now you can fall down the rabbit hole of months, if not years, of your own annotations and observations.
Lots of folks use notebooks or journals and have volumes of their own notes beyond the books they’ve read. They can go back through and read their notes as readily as they could go back and re-read a book.
After you finish your book, go back to the beginning and copy your marginalia from the original to a separate notebook. The extra learning here happens when you handwrite your own thoughts from one document to another, as the act of copying by hand increases your comprehension and actively engages your thinking.
Make sure to clearly note what book and edition you are copying over from, including page numbers.
To really uplevel your marginalia journal game, create a table of contents at the beginning you can add to with each new book you read.
This method of collection is especially useful if you are researching a particular topic or concept, perhaps for a future book or talk you are planning. Though some people just keep chests of notecards in their office space, regardless of whether they are working on a particular project or not.
I learned how to do it when I was still in school as part of a debate module and have helped a handful of authors organize their own notes and research for a big project. Afterward, they have all been amazed by how easily we were able to cut down 20K pages of reading to a couple packs of structured notecards.
To do this, you’ll want to first set up the system for how you are going to categorize your marginalia. If you need some advice for setting up this system, Ryan Holiday outlines it better than I could (or would want to).
Similar to eReader highlights and notes, with the dawn of digital reading has come the sunrise of digital content collection.
My friend (and fellow prolific reader) Jenny Blake takes photos of quotes and excerpts in books she is reading and saves them to her Evernote using Evernote Web Clipper. This helped her to organize research and clippings for her best-seller, Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One.
You could save photos of your own highlights and notes to whatever your digital image repository of choice may be, whether that is Evernote or Dropbox or Google Photos.
After doing all this research and writing about marginalia, I personally decided to update my system a bit to include Google Docs as a notebook and copying my Kindle notes and highlights over. I’ll likely share that on a more regular basis with the CYC Writing Rundown crew.
As a writer, I can’t imagine a worse fate than publishing something and having it go on a shelf somewhere after being read only once (if that).
Though I cannot speak for all creatives, I would imagine most have this same feeling.
I want my pieces to be velveteen rabbits, loved so much that their fur has been rubbed off and their eyes are hanging by threads.
Because, as I replied to Matt’s beautiful tweet with a similar sentiment, it is at that moment that the work becomes real.
It isn’t just something that has been created and put out for people to look at.
It is something that becomes a part of their lives—it becomes a part of them.
So go out and write all over the books you buy.
The author will thank you, history will thank you, and, most importantly, you’ll thank yourself.
Elisa Doucette is a writer and editor who works with professional writers, entrepreneurs, and brands that want to make their own words even better. She is the Founder of Craft Your Content, and oversees Client Strategy and Writing Coaching. Her own writing has been featured in places like Forbes, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yahoo! Small Business, and The Huffington Post, among others. She also hosts the Writers' Rough Drafts podcast here on CYC. When she isn't writing, editing, or reading words, she can usually be found at a local pub quiz, deep in a sun salutation, or binging TV shows for concept ideas and laughs.