Wednesday, September 7, 2016

On Marginalia, or, Why I Don't Write in my Books

While cleaning up my office, and computer this summer in preparation for my sabbatical I found a forgotten file that appeared to be an essay I started in response to this editorial about marginalia from the Bridgewater Review. It seemed rather late to finish it to submit to the magazine, but the ideas in it seemed appropriate for a blog post, so I've adapted the response for publication here.

While we all have been taught that marking up library books is wrong, might we not question that dictum? If you have something relevant to add to what the author is saying, why not share it? As a librarian I respect the argument, but still insist that library books be returned in the same condition that they were loaned.

But what about writing in our own books? Certainly people can do what they like with their own property, including defacing it, as long as it doesn't hurt someone else. And we might even argue that we should write in our books. We might want to refer back to an idea that was sparked while reading, and notes can help us remember those. Additionally, any of us could become another Thomas Jefferson, or a Mother Teresa. Won't our marginalia then be valuable to historians? However, for myself, I will say that if, in time, anyone should ever go looking through my books for musings they will likely be sorely disappointed. I hung up my hi-liter in college, and while I probably made some notes in some of my graduate school textbooks too, I have since been careful not to. I think perhaps what made me stop writing in books all together may have been the purchase of a used copy of Ashes of Izalco by Claribel Alegria and Darwin J. Flakoll from a college bookstore. It was not-so-meaningfully marked up by a previous reader (mostly with a yellow hi-liter), and it was also signed by both authors, something I did not realize when I bought it. I read the book for a class, and honestly don't remember it but still it sits on my special shelf reserved for autographed copies of books. And I really hate that this one has been defaced.

I read a lot of books, and I often blog about them. I use scraps of paper or post-it notes to mark things that I want to return to later. Generally, once I've published my blog post about a particular book I pull all my markings out. Of course, if I've read a library copy this is simply common courtesy to my colleagues who will have to do the work of removing the markers if I don't, but even when I use a personal copy of a book I still take the time to remove any physical evidence that I actually read it. I firmly believe that each reader needs to make up his or her own mind about the meaning of a text, and they don't need someone else's ideas mucking that up. Since I usually pass a book along to someone else once I've read it, the next reader will have a fresh start. (I do, however, make an exception to this rule for cookbooks when I make adjustments that improve the recipe as written. This, of course, will only help the next user, as Harry Potter learned in The Half-Blood Prince!).

I recommend that readers who wish to engage with authors do so directly by writing to them (if they are living). The letter writer is very likely to be rewarded with a response directly from the author. I also occasionally find that an author has commented on one of my blog posts, truly a treat! Of course one cannot communicate directly with a deceased author, and so one must be content with corresponding with scholars, editors, or other fans. All of this can be done online, and so comments will reach a wider audience than those written in a single copy of a book, to be read only by those who happen to pick up the same one.

As an end note, I will concede that sometimes marginalia can have worth, as illustrated in this story of a library book made more valuable when the annotations were discovered.

It also looks like it is time for me to re-read Ashes of Izalco.

Even the cover of my copy is "enhanced" with yellow hi-liter
Autographs inside


  1. It was from the somewhat snarky book How to Get Invited to the White House that I learned that authors -- unless they are A-list stars -- will almost always answer letters. That is why I have a post card from Robert Pirsig. Yes, Robert effin Persig!

    As for deceased authors, the closest I got was when the estate of Vincent Price "liked" one of our food posts on Facebook. Gave me a chill, that one did.

    1. Plus which, didn't you get a letter from Tolkien's editor?

    2. Oh, yes. The first person outside of his family ever to read his work actually wrote me a letter!