Writing in Books: Such Controversy…..

Well, BBAW has come and gone, but I must admit that the book meme we completed a week ago sparked an idea for a blog post. I completed the entire meme – approximately 15 questions or so – that detailed my personal reading preferences. The ONE question that elicited the greatest response was the one that asked “Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?”

OH MY! I had no idea that the book world was so divided on this one issue. I had several mention that the fact I write in my books truly surprised them. Hmmm….I wonder what “online personality” has come across in my posts. Anyway, I thought that I owed the book blogosphere a more detailed explanation of my (apparently) taboo reading habit.

First of all, I do NOT write in library books or books that I borrow from others. I am respectful of others’ property and would never presume to mark up a book that is not my own. If I read a library book with the intent of posting a book review, I tend to use an index card as a book mark (I do not dog ear books that are not my own either). I make notes on this card to spark ideas for the review. I keep a running list of characters, prominent settings, page numbers for memorable quotes, and perhaps a personal commentary or two. The card is promptly thrown away after the review has posted.

I also rarely write in books that I am reading for pure pleasure — cozy mysteries, for example. I allow myself to completely escape into the story and do not take the time to stop and write while reading. I do, however, break (or rather, crease) the spine when reading the book (I know – another taboo) – but I do not view the broken spine as book rape. I view a broken spine as I would view wrinkles on an aging parent. They show that the book was fully enjoyed, loved, and became an old friend along the way.

I always mark in books that I read for study purposes – especially those books that I teach, as well as those books that I read for my summer classes. I ALWAYS use pencil. I don’t use pen for several reasons, mostly because the perfectionist in me is afraid of making a mistake and I don’t want to cross out. I also use pencil because it is lighter in color – and therefore does not distract me when I re-read the book. I tend to asterisk portions of the book that I want to quickly identify as important to the plot or character development. I tend to circle word choice – either because I am unfamiliar with the word and want to look up the official definition at a later date, or I am taken with the beauty of the prose and want to reference it. If I notice foreshadowing – I like to mark the page as such – and then when I discover the event that was indeed foreshadowed, I add the corresponding page number. In the back of the book – on a blank page – I like to keep track of all the pages that I believe offer significant quotes for a class discussion.

Someone questioned whether the writing in my books distracts me when I re-read it. The answer is no. Actually, I find that it enhances my reading experience. There seems to be some connection that if I have already written down an insight, I no longer have to focus on that one thought. It frees my mind to perhaps dig deeper and find something else that I missed the first (or second or third) go around. It is always quite interesting to me to see what attracted my attention in the past. Perhaps I was experiencing something in my personal life that caused me to notice something that I would have otherwise ignored at another time in life.

Would anyone want to borrow a book that I have defaced? Well, perhaps my students would think that my insights might help them on the final exam, but other than that – NO. And that is fine with me. I have taken the book and made it my own. I have related to the book – and the author – in such a way that it has become an integral part of my literary life, and I would not wish to share those personal thoughts with anyone. I have no problem recommending books to others, but I would greatly encourage them to either purchase their own copy – or perhaps utilize the local library.

As a side note, let me give you an example of how I LOVE my marked books. I read The Hobbit for the first time five years ago when I consented to teach it to my British Literature students. I am NOT a fan of fantasy fiction, and this compromise was truly a great sacrifice on my part. The first time I read the book, I focused on the the character names (for some reason they are very difficult for me to discern) and basic plot time line. In each of the subsequent years, I have been able to focus on other aspects of the novel. The fact that Oin and Gloin are always fire starters (and how Tolkien does an amazing job of developing consistent characters throughout the course of the novel). I have been able to truly focus on Bilbo’s development as a “burglar” and subsequently a hero. I have been able to see the strong correlation between Bilbo’s quest to steal the dragon’s treasure – and the Christian walk (if you don’t see that correlation – that is OK – this is strictly my interpretation of the book). And there is so much more.

This copy of The Hobbit is totally falling apart. I have an entire section that is separated from the spine. There is writing on nearly every page. I finally purchased another copy of the book to use in class this year BUT…..I will forever treasure this first copy. I plan to shelve the book in a prominent place – as this book represents to me a literary turn in my life. It proves to me that I can read and understand and enjoy fantasy fiction. It has shown me that there is pure joy in re-reading a book over and over again. It is like the ratty, old, blanket that Linus carries around and would never forsake. That is the significance that this book holds for me.

I hope that I have not offended too many here with my highly controversial reading habits. I hope that you will still welcome me in the fold of book bloggers, for I truly do LOVE books. I guess I just have a different way of showing my affection.


  • Lisa

    Excellent post! I also always wrote in books that I was using for course work. I need to start using an index card for books I'm reviewing–I am forever having to go back and try to find things. Which takes so much time, I tend not to do it. Thus, no where near as many quotes in my reviews as I would like.

  • Kim

    I too was surprised by the controversy, I'm a big writer in my books. I almost always read with a pen in my hand. I underline, I make comments and connections in the margins, then when I discuss the book with anyone or attend a talk about the book, I write all over the inside cover or the places refered to. I love going back and seeing what I wrote.

  • Belle

    I think I mentioned this in my comment on your BBAW meme post, Molly, but it bears saying again. The only reason why I don't write in my books (and the meme actually inspired me to start doing it!) is because I never remember to do it! And if you were to gift me with one of your personal marked-in books, I would treasure it. I always love finding marked-up books in used-book stores. It really enhances the book, I think, and a lot of times, I have as much fun reading through the notes after I read the book as I did while reading the book!

  • C.B. James

    I would much rather have your thoroughly marked copy of The Hobbit than a pristine new paperback. I love it when I can find a book that has been marked in. They're very difficult to come by these days. Reading what another reader has marked is often as much fun as reading the actual text. I was lucky enough to find a couple of 19th century novels with comments from their first readers in them when doing my masters thesis. What people thought about the book 125 years ago was eye-opening.

  • ds

    I am completely on your side, Molly! Library books and "loaners" are off-limits, but my own do bear witness to what's going on in my head as I read (or reread) them. There are several battered but loved editions on the shelf right now that I go back to again & again. It is quite interesting to look over the marginal notes & see what my younger self was thinking.

  • Anonymous

    I absolutely love your index card idea! Despite spending my entire academic career studying English literature, somehow I never thought to keep a running list of key items like themes, characters, setting, etc. to refer back to later. Totally going to start doing that!

    Like you, I would never mark up books I've been loaned from a friend or the library, but I do write in my own books occasionally and dog-ear pages that have relevant quotes on them. When I come across something that particularly strikes me, I like to be able to refer back to it without having to search around! I think that's OK… or, at least, I did. 😉

  • JoAnn

    'Book rape'…can I borrow that expression?? Finding second hand books with markings almost feels like eavesdropping, but that's fun sometimes. I did experiment with writing in books a couple years ago (using pencil, for the same reasons as you) but it just wasn't for me. I love my post-it notes! One of my twins is actually required to annotate her books for English. She had a hard time at first though. Great post, Molly….and I won't hold writing in books against you;-)

  • Zee

    Well I am never going to have to write a post on this topic. I will just refer people to your answer. Down to the index card as a bookmark for library books.

    Thank you for writing down my thoughts for me 😀

  • Beth F

    Ohhhh. Well yes. Books I need for work and books I used when I was a student and when taught are well marked: underlined, highlighted, starred, circled, full of margin notes.

    My cookbooks are splattered on, written on, and fully defaced.

    Books I read for pleasure and review are in great shape. I don't underline or star or circle. I use sticky notes to flag information I might need for a review and I also take notes on them. They are never written in.

    If I taught literature, English, or something related, I would probably mark up my novels.

    Thanks. I get it.

  • Trisha

    We are so similar that it's a bit creepy – it must be the teacher in us. I'm a big fan of writing while reading, whether it's in the book or now. I feel it's the only true way to deeply read. On a side note, I enjoy other people's notes in the margin. I love figuring out what they meant or why that section was important.

  • Jenners

    I think it is great that you have this relationship with your books. I love that you think so much when you read .. I tend to read for entertainment and not study — so I don't feel the need to "read deep." But thinking back to college, I'm not sure if I wrote in books then.

    And your analogy of "breaking the spine" and aged parent gave me the shivers. : 0

    Great post … and I can't imagine anyone wanting to kick you out of the book blogging community. If you go, I go too as I'm a dog-earer!

  • Diane

    Molly…..it's all perfectly clear now. I guess I was just surprised, but I don't have a problem writing in books I own, I just have always used post its or index cards. In college I would highlight or jot notes as well.

    I need to jot down passages as I read or I waste time later looking for the passage.

    We're cool! LOL

  • Jo

    I write in mine too! It horrifies my mother (but she is a librarian)! I like re-reading and seeing what I've written. Sometimes, though, I do read stuff and think 'what was I thinking'. For somereason though, I do feel the need to apologise if loan out ones that I've written in.

  • ♥Kathy♥

    Great post Molly. My husband is forever writing in his books (mainly non-fiction). I can't stand to read a book that has notes in it. So if I want to read a book that he has I either have to read it first or go get my own copy. LOL he always ask me if I want to read a book first when he buys a new one. =)

  • Trish

    Great post Molly and wonderful explanation. My habits sound fairly similar to yours. Without marking in my books for school, I would have never been able to recall specific passages in class or for papers. It was a complete time-saver for me, but it also helped me remember better. Something about the act of underlining a passage helped me. In fact, I pulled a book off the shelf today that I read over three years ago to pull a quote. Because it was underlined I could flip right to it. I couldn't even tell you what book I read last week my memory is so bad. 🙂

    Someone said last week in response to the meme that books are meant to be used and enjoyed.

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