Writing between the lines

Okay, enough talk about the art of writing. What about the art of reading?

Specifically, something I was thinking about while standing in line at the pharmacy today:  How many of you write in your books?  Underline? Jot notes in the margins?  Scribble comments when you agree or disagree with the author?

Obviously this is something that would apply more to non-fiction books.  But do you think it’s a good idea?

I used to think writing in books was blasphemous.  Then in high school and college I started doing it.  Now I think it’s blasphemous again.  Sort of.  Sometimes.  Maybe.

I have a wide variety of books, from dog-eared paperbacks to fancy-shmancy leather books with stitched-in ribbon bookmarks.  Obviously I wouldn’t write in my original edition of H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History.  And my pristine copy of Anthony Saidy and Norman Lessing’s beautiful coffee-table book The World of Chess ?  I almost put gloves on when I handle that one.

But then, in my office closet, and on the cheapie bookshelf in that room, I have a wide range of paperbacks.  Some have yellowed covers.  Some were $1.95.  A couple don’t even have UPC codes on the back.  Yeah, we’re talkin’ old.  Ever go back to an old, beloved book after many years, open it, and a page falls out?  Some of these books are drying up.  These I can write in.  If the book itself is priceless to me, I’ll try to buy a new edition online or in a store if possible.  One of the wonderful things the Internet has done is make it so easy to hunt down copies of old books.

And some books I bought just as vessels of information.  Those books have notes in the margins galore.  I used to write my own variations in my chess books.  I replay some of these ideas now and I’m embarrassed.  My chess computer software can refute these “brilliant” lines in seconds.  There are some books I wish I hadn’t written in, and it’s not to spare the books!

Recipe books seem like they’d be naturals for writing in.  I’d imagine the books of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin are chock full of modifications and secret ingredients.  But I don’t own any cookbooks.  I have some written-down recipes but mostly my wife cooks, and I don’t think she writes in her cook books.  She does most of her cooking from her head anyway.

Car repair manuals strike me as excellent books for marginal notations, but I have no car repair manuals, and anyone who knows me even remotely would laugh hysterically at the thought of me attempting to repair a car.  I once tried to change the windshield wiper blades.  I thought I did it right, but in the first rain I switched the wipers on and after two minutes the blades detached and flew into some bushes.  Now I swallow my pride and ask the dealer to change my wiper blades.  As well as everything else.  I smugly tell myself, “Yeah, but I bet he can’t write novels!”

Then there are the books I’ve written in to sort of argue with the authors.  This started in 1987, when I first read The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom (whose first name Amazon continues to misspell on its website).  I really wanted to argue face-to-face with the author, or at least call him out on some of his generalizations and straw-man arguments.  I filled that book with so many comments, underlined so much, that the spine is gone from all the times I pressed the book flat to write in it.  Some other books where I’ve argued with the authors include The Present Age by Robert Nisbet, Voltaire’s Bastards by John Ralston Saul and The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman.  Actually, I read The March of Folly so long ago that I don’t remember it.  Maybe I should reread it—or my notes.

And actually I have another copy of The Outline of History, and that one has some notes from my updating of the text, which was last revised in 1947.  All right, actually I have three copies of The Outline, one of each edition, because I have a strange obsession bordering on a fetish with that book.  I haven’t cracked the latest version yet, which is a Barnes and Noble reprint of the original 1919 edition, but when I do, I’m sure I’ll write updates in the last chapter, which deals with that newfangled creation, the League of Nations.  (Hope it works out.)

What about you?  Do you write in books?  Are books closer to works of art or utilitarian?  Do you care about dog-ears, creases, and most annoying of all, when the dust covers of hardbacks curl up on the top and bottom edges?  (That last one drives me nuts because there’s nothing I can do about it.)

Post here and talk about what kind of books you write in—or why you don’t.

4 responses

  1. Dana

    I love hardcover books, and my softcover versions get much harder treatment, but I’ve always cosidered dust jackets to be part of the protection and not something to be protected. Still the idea of writing in a book scandalizes me. Perhaps that’s just my public eduation – you don’t write in free books that have to be passed down to others, at least I don’t. Although I don’t underline pertinent points either, my brain doesn’t really work that way – I really do have to read things, not just scan them, to retain the information. People who highlight and come back latter for studying mystify me. I’d just read the material again. And I’m more likely to tell the author verbally what I think, than write it down…although hopefully not in public or maybe they’d lock me up.


    March 7, 2010 at 2:26 pm

  2. Mona

    My father was a college professor and wrote in books constantly, even mine. I never bother. I didn’t like it when he did it and I don’t like it now. Defaces the book. Great blog, keep it up. When is this novel coming out?


    March 7, 2010 at 2:58 pm

  3. Robin

    I only only write in cookbooks. That is because I can’t leave a recipe alone, and when the adulterations come out well, I want to have a record of it. Or when a recipe is bad, I want to know to never make it again, and why.


    March 9, 2010 at 6:49 pm

  4. Anna Budd

    I am directing Othello at Canada College in Redwood City (opening 5/6 – quick plug!), and I seriously considered copying every page of my Folger edition before giving in and writing my directoral notes in the book itself.

    It feels strange, even after a few weeks. But its also really helped me to claim the play as my own – something that, for better or worse, every director needs to do. That paperback copy is becoming *my* Othello, in a sense – I’m shaping my understanding and my vision as the margins of the book become increasingly populated with blocking notes, beat breaks, bits of insight, different interpretations of the action. Fun!!


    March 11, 2010 at 2:10 pm

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