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

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