Writing in Books — Good or Evil?

I have a long history with books, and over that time I’ve developed an appreciation not only of the words within a book, but also of the aesthetic nature of books as objects. I can admire a well made book simply for the way that it looks.

I also have my own idiosyncrasies when it comes to books. All my friends know not to break the bindings of my books (no matter how small and cramped that might make the reading experience). I don’t like people dog-earing books. My blood pressure has shot through the roof when I’ve witnessed a book held open by flipping it over on a table — use a bookmark, people!

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Oddly enough, though, there is one thing that does not make my skin crawl in regards to books, and that’s writing in them.

This seems counter-intuitive, even to me, since all my other book issues revolve around keeping the copy of the book as pristine as possible. That’s why I thought I’d put together an article on the subject, both to get some feedback from folks out there on the subject as well as clarify my own stance.

Why Writing in Books is Good

Here is a brief list of reasons why I think writing in books is a valid behavior, and not one that forces you to rip someone’s pencil out of their hand:

  • It’s a form of time travel. When you write in a book, your impressions at the time of reading form a kind of time capsule that you can examine the next time you read the book. Were your initial impressions of a character completely off? Did you not see the huge plot twist coming, or did you have it down at page 15? This exploration of yourself as a person growing can be enlightening.
  • It makes the book your own. When you write in a book, you make your own voice part of the book itself. When you loan the book out to others, they even get to share some of your thoughts, even when you’re not there. It’s a whole different experience to read a book with commentary along the edges written by someone you know.
  • You engage the book more. When you read a book, pencil in hand, ready to comment on sections of it, you read the book in a different way. You’re a much more active reader, one who doesn’t allow full sections of the narrative to simply drift by unexamined. You question things more. By writing in the book, you create a dialog with the text, rather than just listening to a monologue.
  • It makes reviewing a book easier. In this sense, I don’t mean book reviews like those I write for this site, though it helps with that, too. I just mean that if you write in a book, you can flip through it quickly and see that parts that really impacted you. You can re-read the great lines that you underlined. Sometimes you have to think back to why you underlined those lines, but even that is an adventure of its own.

Let me clarify, too, that when I’m talking about writing in books, I’m talking about writing in all kinds of books. Textbooks, non-fiction, fiction — whatever. In fact, if you’re reading a text book for learning, and you’re not writing in it, you’re probably wasting your time.

Certainly there are exceptions to these rules.

  • Never, and I repeat never, write in a borrowed book, especially those that you borrow from the library. Only write in those books that you yourself own.
  • If you’re buying books to collect, then don’t write in them. Unless you’re the author of the book and you’re putting your autograph on the cover page, then writing in a book probably won’t make it any more valuable.

So, that’s where I stand on writing in books. Please, if you take issue with this, or if you have other opinions — leave a comment. I’d like to hear what you have to say, whether or not you agree with me.

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