Pop Survey: Do You Write in Your Books?

It’s a digital age, but we’re still mad for paper! Even as readers embrace the connectivity and convenience offered by iPads and Kindles, there are still many good reasons to celebrate a book’s physicality. In PloughsharesBook Arts series, we’ll be looking at some of the artists, curators, and craftspeople who work to keep things fresh and relevant.

Jane Buyers, Notes on Macbeth: Enter Lady Macbeth, 2004. Lithograph, etching, chine colle. 81.5 x 102 cm. Photo credit: Laura Arsie. (Via Numero Cinq, used with permission.)

Marginal notes re-purposed to create fine art: “A black rose is planted over the scrawled notes of some long ago student struggling with the text of Macbeth….The student’s handwriting is so uncertain and you feel the tremendous desire to understand. I like the anxiety and striving to grasp the meaning of the printed word.” Jane Buyers, Notes on Macbeth: Enter Lady Macbeth, 2004. Lithograph, etching, chine colle. 81.5 x 102 cm. Photo credit: Laura Arsie. (Via Numéro Cinq, used with permission. Visit NC’s site for the full interview.)

Okay, Ploughsharers, it’s time to share some of your opinions! Today we’re taking a little squiggly, ink-stained side road in our journey through book arts with a special question just for you:

Do you write in your books?

Or do you prefer to keep them pristine?

(Tell us in the comments section below!)

Readers are a passionate bunch. I did a little informal pre-survey of some of my friends and found the responses ranged from horrified gasps of “No, never!” to enthusiastic, fist-pounding  “Hells, yeahs!”

Along the way, I gathered some colorful (and sometimes methodically color-coded) stories I’d like to share with you.

A Confession

But first a confession. I’m a careful abstainer, a longtime, diehard member of the Keep It Pristine club.

A conservative approach: My copy of Don Delillo's Mao II from the mid-1990s with its tiny scrap of Post-It still sticking strong.

A conservative approach: My copy of Don DeLillo’s Mao II from the mid-1990s, its tiny shred of Post-it still sticking fast to a passage I loved.

Writing instruments never touch my reading materials. I’ll mark pages and passages with a Post-it, jotting down my thoughts, with their corresponding page numbers, in a notebook. There’s always a crisp roll of Brodart book jacket covers at the ready in my desk drawer.  I take care to use bookmarks and never dog-ear. My books are scrupulously clean.

Doesn’t sound like much of a confession, does it?

Well, here’s the thing: I’ve always somehow wished I was the kind of person who wrote in books, who was so full of spontaneous creativity, literary passion and spark that I just had to scrawl all over them. Once, as a teenager, I even tried to deliberately cultivate the habit, but my heart just wasn’t in it and the whole thing felt contrived. As I self-consciously circled and underlined and annotated, all I could think was You’re ruining that book.

A few years working in a used bookstore during college reinforced the No Writing in Books policy for me. There I learned the value (resale and otherwise) of clean pages, tight bindings, and crisp jackets. Still, I’m fascinated by what drives others to make their mark.

Loving Them to Bits

My friend Quintan Ana Wikswo describes herself as “one of those hideous beasts who loves to crack spines.” In a confessional blog post about her no-holds-barred habitual rough-housing of bound, printed matter, she describes one of the more hair-raising book-ravaging indiscretions of her youth. Loving some borrowed library books to bits, she marked them up mercilessly, consuming their pages the way “a drowning rat might gnaw at the cracker he’s floating upon.” The resulting $17,000 library fine, however, was rather sobering.

Megan Mayhew Bergman's marked-up copy of Henry Miller's The Tropic of Cancer (shhhh, don't tell Seinfeld's Bookman the Library Cop)

Megan Mayhew Bergman’s copy of Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer, marked up for a class she was teaching at Bennington. (Shhhh, don’t tell Seinfeld‘s Bookman the Library Cop!)

Writer Megan Mayhew Bergman demonstrates a similar visceral love for her books—albeit one guided and tempered by pedagogical practicality: I underline, make exclamation points, star passages—the more scribbles, the more I’ve loved the book. It makes it easier to return to passages when I’m writing academic or critical work. It’s one of the ways I truly engage with a text, especially if I’m teaching it.”

Marginalia as Time-Travel: Encountering Others (and Past Selves)

Toni's late grandfather's notes on Hamlet (and "good ole Polonius" too).

Toni’s Thayer’s late grandfather’s passed-down copy of Hamlet: “Teaching Hamlet for the first time with him sitting there on the page with me was one of the true joys of my life .”

Toni Thayer, a writer and writing instructor based in Cleveland, is also in the love-to-write-in-books camp (are we seeing a trend with teachers here?): “It’s one of the major reasons I dislike eBooks—highlighting and adding comments electronically just isn’t the same… I sometimes teach from books owned by my grandfather, who was an English professor, and I LOVE LOVE LOVE the conversation I get to enter into with him through his margin notes! Teaching Hamlet for the first time with him sitting there on the page with me was one of the true joys of my life.”

Somewhat less charming, however, are the random jottings of even more random strangers, as noted by my writer friend Laura Catherine Brown: “I really hate buying a used book online only to find it written-in and/or underlined and/or highlighted and/or notated. It’s like running into a gossipy person who shoots his or her mouth off at you when you’re trying to process and form your own opinions.”

Others I surveyed expressed chagrin at re-encountering their own less than brilliant comments scribbled decades ago. Sometimes we really don’t want to get reacquainted with our past selves.

Teenage Daydreams: Doodles, Graffiti, and Fighting the Power

Following another train of thought: 100-year-old graffiti in a textbook on human physiology (via

Following a different train of thought: 100-year-old doodles in a textbook on human physiology (image via Ross Griff on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

Call it the graffiti of the book world. Mustaches, glasses, and all those other scribbled add-on, um, appendages. Creative enhancement to Board of Ed-issued textbooks deserves a special category all its own.

I remember being by turns annoyed and entertained by the many “reinterpretations” I encountered in my well-worn and often comically outdated public elementary and high school texts. A recent viral post on Buzzfeed showcases the work of some of that rebellious, covert art’s most accomplished practitioners.

Getting Artful

Not all doodles decrease value. Sometimes a little extra ink can transform an otherwise ordinary book into a hot commodity. For example, Frida Kahlo’s doodled, painted and collaged copy of The Works of Edgar Allen Poe—a worn old copy of a mass-produced book that would otherwise be worth only a few dollars on the market today. With the artist’s enhancements, it fetched over $24,000 at auction last year.

I suppose the writers and artists among us can always dream our own colorful scrawls will someday be so sought-after.

My Precious?/Finding Balance

When I visited artist and hand bookbinder, Regin Igloria, at his community binding space, North Branch Projects, earlier this year, he said something about his hand-bound sketchbooks and notebooks that really stuck with me. I told him I found it easy to write and draw in cheap, disposable notepads, but that when it came to using ones that were made with considerable care and craftsmanship—such as the ones at North Branch—I find it really hard to make that first mark.

A page from Regin Igloria's hand-bound notebook.

A page from one of Regin Igloria’s hand-bound sketchbooks: “I [wanted] my own students to become less inhibited about putting content into the pages…to lose the preciousness about them.”

Regin said that many others who came to his bindery shared my attitude, but that he’d found a remedy for it, a sure-fire way to break a new blank notebook in: “My drawing teacher at SAIC [School of the Art Institute of Chicago] had us pour coffee or tea in our sketchbooks in order to draw abstractions from them. I went ahead and used his idea to get my own students to become less inhibited about putting content into the pages of our hand-bound sketchbooks, and to lose the preciousness about them.”

Books, like sketchbooks are meant to be used, aren’t they? When I think about that copy of Mao II still sitting on my shelf with its 20-year-old Post-it, I realize I still love that line I flagged, that what makes that paperback valuable to me isn’t its potential for resale, but the words and memories its pages contain. Maybe I should pick up a pencil and mark it now.

Readers, now it’s your turn. Tell us: Do you write in your books? Why? Why not?

Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?

About Nora Maynard

Nora Maynard's recent work has appeared in Salon, The Millions, Drunken Boat, Necessary Fiction, and Underwater New York, among others. She was previously a weekly columnist for Apartment Therapy: The Kitchn, 2006-2011. Nora's been awarded fiction fellowships by Ucross, Blue Mountain Center, Millay Colony, Ragdale, and I-Park. She's a winner of the Bronx Writers’ Center/Bronx Council of the Arts Chapter One Competition, and a member of the Board of Directors for The Millay Colony for the Arts. She recently completed her ninth marathon and her first novel. www.noramaynard.com, Twitter: @noramaynard
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11 Responses to Pop Survey: Do You Write in Your Books?

  1. Janet Macy says:

    Yes! I write in books. I highlight, underline, write words in the column.

    Sometimes I will just use a blank page in the back of the book and put page numbers and the quote or my thought. Especially if this book is one that I know I will use for leading a class and I want to know where I saw a certain quote.

    HOWEVER – I now have a kindle and am trying to figure out how to best get my thoughts down. I do 2 things: Underline and make notes on what I’m reading. I also use the “NOTE” app and make notes there.

    I make notes in my Bible and highlight or underline. I put the date and the name of the person preaching. It is THE living breathing Word of God. When God shows me I add it to the margin.

  2. The Angry Luddite says:

    My mother – a lifelong bibliophile – considers it some sort of sacrilege to write in a book. In general I agree, but exceptions come. Years back I started a short-lived book club for Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, and that one was highlighted and marked up to all hell when I was done with it – it just wasn’t my original copy, which is lovingly bound and several decades old. I bought a second, printed on cheap paper, and made my notes there. It seemed like a reasonable compromise at the time.

  3. EKSwitaj says:

    I write, underline, flag, and fold pages. My marginalia have footnotes. I have copies of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake in which I have written notes on my notes.

  4. Gayle says:

    I used to write in and highlight my books but I rarely do so now. I find this to be distracting when I re-read the particular tome. If I need to remember something from whatever I’m reading, I use old-fashioned notes to help me in this. I also donate or sell the books I’m finished with so writing, highlighting, etc. reduces their value.

  5. Gabriel says:

    I like annotations, readable ones, sometimes i do it myself. Most times i don’t dare……..like i am defiling a book by writing in it. if i do..i make notes in nonfiction books. Interesting stuff from fiction books i usually copy into a note book with the name of the writer, name of the book and the page. I might use it in a story and then i could name it afterwards.
    But i think some books get richer when there are notes next to the text.
    I love books and therefore its hard for me to write in them.

  6. John Carter says:

    I have trouble NOT writing in my books. For me, the action of underlining, adding brackets, or putting a star in the margins allows me to engage with the text more, as well as marking the spot as important for later reference.

    The habit started in my university lit classes, but now it’s difficult for me truly grasp important passages without being able to physically interact with the words on the page.

  7. Poetic_line says:

    I keep my books pristine. Notes are in my head.

  8. Bekah says:

    I mark and write notes obsessively in my books for my classes, but I tend to be more hesitant in books that are really precious to me. I’m always torn between loving the way a marked-up book appears and feels–like a textual photo album–and the way a cleaner book allows uninterrupted rereads. I suppose I don’t really have a system. Although, especially in books I don’t enjoy so much, I tend to end up with numerous sarcastic comments in the margins, like “What?!” and “Wow. Okay.” I don’t know why this happens. But at least it’s funny if I lend the book to a friend and they find my snarky reactions all over the pages. Regardless, there’s a certain subdued beauty in annotated books, and I love trying to decipher them when I pick them up from used bookstores and such.

  9. Pingback: This Week's Top Ten Poetic Picks | Tweetspeak PoetryTweetspeak Poetry

  10. The writing in the margins is one thing, but more importantly Jane Buyer’s black rose in the first image is gorgeous!

  11. Mark Johnson says:

    I do not write in my books, but I do jot thoughts or apercus in my trusty Moleskine with page ref. Now, with the advent of e-reading (I use Kindle for PC and Android), it’s a moot point. Although there are some annoying aspects to e-books, most notably the appalling failure of the e-publishers to proofread their scanned and spell-checked documents, the ability to highlight, insert notes that pop up only when needed, and especially the hyperlinks to endnotes (I would hate to tackle “Infinite Jest” without that feature) more than make up for them, the annoying aspects (can you tell I’ve been reading DFW?).

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