Notes in the Margin: Against the Sacredness of Books

What did you think the last time you checked a book in and found notes in the margins, or passages underlined, or pages dogeared? Most of us, I’m sure, are at least annoyed by that. I work in academic libraries and we see this a lot—so much that there really is nothing we can do unless the writing obscures the actual text of the book. I know a few public librarians who see this too, and in some cases, they immediately remove form the collection books in which patrons wrote. There’s something offensive about defacing a book like this. But why?

One of my favorite books of 2013 (I know, not exactly on the bleeding edge here) was called S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (though its title now seems to be Ship of Theseus in a lot of places, if you feel like looking for it). It wasn’t particularly…good, but it represented something that I often think about. The unique thing about the book is that the printed text of the book itself is not the story. The book itself is quite an object to behold—it’s a big, clothbound tome encased in a cardboard box. The book is dressed up to look like a library book—DCC spine label and all. The book’s pages contain all kinds of newspaper clippings, paper star-charts and other ephemera. The pages are covered in marginalia. That’s where the novel’s story takes place, as it turns out. The book within the book, Ship of Theseus, is a novel that, in the fiction of this project, was written in 1949 and is shrouded in mysteries. Our main characters are a cynical graduate student and a bright-eyed undergrad. All we know about them is what they tell us in their notes in the margins of the book. They pass these marginal notes, and the other objects in the pages, to each other as they realize that they are both attempting to unravel the same mystery.

It wasn’t the best book overall, but it’s an interesting premise. It speaks to something that we as librarians think about constantly, as preservers and promoters of culture. It also speaks to something that’s been lost in reading culture—the idea of reading as a collective or communal exercise. Is that not what reading is, after all? Joining together with strangers in conversation?

Personally, I have shocked and horrified many a book-loving visitor when they peruse my bookshelves. My personal collection is very well organized, and everything is in decent shape. However, I fill the margins of my books with notes, I dog ear pages, I underline sentences or passages I find important or that I just like.

“It’s my property, right?” is what I typically say when people ask me why I do this to my poor books. That’s not really what I mean though, it’s just an easy answer that usually gets reluctant nods. But I think that reading with a pen in your hand is the only way to read. Otherwise, I think, we subject ourselves to the tyranny of the author, we take in the information passively and without question. Giving oneself the liberty to vehemently object to things, exuberantly agree with other things as we are reading is how one gets the most value out of a book. Sure, we can do that in our heads, or in a notebook, but no one else will see those things, and we are more likely to forget about them ourselves.

Writing in the margins of a book is not vandalism (well, in most cases, let’s hope). It shows a deep engagement with the text—an engagement so rich and exciting that the reader can’t help but to comment back, to engage in whatever conversation is happening in the book.

So, I don’t want to actively promote writing in books. There’s always going to be that person who hears a new rule they don’t really like and they immediately push the boundaries to prove a point. There will always be vandals, there will always be jerks, there will always be those who just ruin things for fun. That’s not what I’m speaking about. I want to suggest that, if the urge is so overwhelming that one just can’t help but write thoughts in the margin, I don’t think they should be seen as vandals for doing so. Books are, after all, temporary objects meant only to convey meaning and information. We do our best to preserve them for future use, but I think we should at least consider the idea of preserving the human interactions with those objects.

Categories: Reading, reflections, Reviews

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1 reply

  1. Totally agree with this. I love finding (considered) responses to the text in the margins of books I buy second hand or borrow. Also, the odd shopping list :-).


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