Writing in Your Books: An Act of Engagement or Blasphemy?

Is the physical book merely a vessel for conveying ideas, or is it a canvas to be respected and preserved?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you love sci-fi, romance, or the latest microeconomics analysis. There are only two types of readers: those who annotate, and those who think writing in a book is committing literary treason.

Book lovers cherish words for their power to ignite the imagination and unlock powerful emotions. But what about the page itself? Is the physical book merely a vessel for conveying ideas, or is it a canvas to be respected and preserved?

Most of us start annotating in the school system. Like many things that originate there, we may likely be left with some subconscious associations tying back to our love of school or our horrors of adolescence. When we annotate, we may feel a tinge of nostalgia, a set of learned practices that grew and stemmed into a lifelong love affair with the practice. For others, it may stir up aversion, disgust, or recurring night terrors.

To jot notes in a book seems in some way blasphemous, especially in a really good book. The words are meant to be pristine, the books printed are meant to remain just as they are. Taking good care of a book almost seems like good hygiene. And of course, if you refrain from annotating, you can pass your book on to someone else, who in turn can use his or her own creativity unhampered by the invasive demarcations of someone else.

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At the same time, it would be a mistake to assume that annotators don’t revere books in the same fashion as non-annotators. Like with religion, people practice their methodologies differently. Dashing quick notes in the margin or underlining a word to lookup later on, these are all forms of processing and even honoring an author’s work.

For a long time I was of the “writing in books is wrong” persuasion. But as time went on, I slowly found myself adapting certain scribbling behaviors. When reading difficult works, I circle words or sentences I want to return to. In passages that particularly move me, I feel compelled to somehow make note of it, even just with a faint pencil line bracketing the paragraphs. And then there are other times when I’m so engrossed in a page that lifting a pen seems silly, or perhaps even better, it doesn’t even occur to me.

[Photo Credit: from the David Foster Wallace archive, the author’s annotations in Don DeLillo’s Players. Courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin]

Do you annotate in your books? Why or why not?

About Kira Walton

Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

  • Carol J Montgomery-Taylor

    I fall between both preferences of annotate and revere the printed page. If I am reading a textbook that I have purchased, I feel perfectly fine in annotating (after all, I am reading the book to learn). If I am reading fiction, I generally don’t annotate. I can always pick the book up again later if I remember something that I might want to use in contextual thought. Generally, only if I want to write something as a quote or give a description that may relate to that fictional writing. As for non-fiction such as a biography, I will probably annotate salient details related to the person being described.

  • techeditor

    If the book belongs to me, I see nothing wrong with writing in it. I highlight or underline passages that I like in a book.

  • Christina Oseland

    I’m firmly in the “Don’t write in your books” camp. That’s what notebooks are for. You aren’t going to own that book forever and the ones with writing in them will always get passed up at garage sales or used book stores.

  • Channah Pastorius

    I don’t write in my books but, that’s me. If you own the book and want to write in it you should be able too. Completely up to the owner to do as they please. Everyone’s reading habits are different. I do put sticky notes through them and sometimes have those little colorful sticky tags hanging out of the book for quick reference if I’m working on something.

  • Susie John

    I like that word, annotate. I can see where it would be especially useful in textbooks or books we buy to educate ourselves. My third grade teacher called it defacing, she was very strict. As for works of literature, I prefer those handy little post-it notes. Keep reading!!

  • whatkaitedid

    The novels I used for my MA dissertation are covered in underlinings, annotations and the odd exclamation mark in the margin. I had completely forgot about this when I lent my copy of Wilkie Collins’ Basil to a friend. She returned it and never mentioned the mini-essay about the incestuous subtext I’d written in it. So i guess the moral here is, only write things in books you don’t mind people reading.

  • Debbie

    I thought it was wrong to write in books and treated them like treasures that were supposed to be preserved in as pristine a condition as possible, until I started college. I picked up the study habit of highlighting important passages and expanded when I started my first English class. I learned that some of my thoughts relating to a passage in the text we were reading are better captured on the page rather than possibly lost in the mixed up files of my mind. When discussing the text later in class, you can follow along and have your notes and thoughts right there in front of you and don’t have to thumb through pages of your notebook only to find what you want when the class has moved on to discussing another section of the text.

  • Sophia

    I always write in my books. I mostly read non-fiction. The objection that “you can pass it on to someone else…” does not apply to me; for if someone wishes to read the book they can purchase his or her own copy. Interacting with the book via writing notes inside gives a far greater sense of connection and involvement in the work than merely writing in separate notebook.But, like I hinted previously, I read for understanding and not just for entertainment. If I were reading just for entertainment, like a good work of fiction, I probably would not write in the book.

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