I’ve been thinking recently on an important topic for bibliophiles: Should you write in your books? The answer varies for every person, but as for me and my tomes: Yes. Scribble away, especially with nonfiction. Here are five reasons I believe defacing an author’s work is warranted.
1. Back up for your own faulty memory
The first reason is memory. Theologian and controversialist Rousas Rushdoony reportedly read a new book every day. And not just read — which, if true, is remarkable enough. He also underlined important passages with a ruler and then indexed the ideas important to him. He’s the extreme picture of something that can benefit any reader. No one can remember everything they read. Underlining, writing marginalia, indexing (even if it’s just a few points or topics) can help you re-access a book and its information when memory inevitably fades.
I’ve found it hugely beneficial in the voluminous research needed for my Paul Revere and angel projects. I’ve even underlined and written in books that are over a century old, such as Charles Ferris Gettemy’s biography The True Story of Paul Revere. I had a hard time at first. I resisted for a long time. The aesthetic crime of it all, you know. But once I ditched my reservations, the payoff was immeasurable.
2. Recapturing your own intellectual moments
Related to memory, marking up your books helps you re-access your own state of mind when you experienced a particular text. We all read in contexts. We have certain arguments going on at one time and not others; we have issues we’re grappling with unique to different times and places; we have confluences of several ideas that only happen at particular junctures. Once they’re gone, that’s it. That moment — and how it influenced your reading and thinking — is gone. Writing in your book as you go serves as method for documenting that unique context, all those unique ideas and happenings. And the more thorough your note-taking, then the more beneficial later on.
The risk here is that you may go back and find yourself embarrassed by your earlier observations or see how you were going down a bogus track when you last read Such and Such by So and So. But you may also find truly valuable insights that you’ve now lost. Both of these have been true in my Revere work, as well as plenty of other projects and diversions.
3. It starts a conversation with the author
Writing in your books is like talking with the author. It’s not the best way, of course. But when the author’s dead, it’s probably the best you’re going to get. That might even be true if he’s alive. (That might especially be true if he’s alive.) Books are written to start conversations. Reading is part of the reader’s role in that conversation. But writing in the text itself is a way to more thoroughly engage in the ideas. I’ve not asked many writers about this, but here’s my basic assumption: they’d all be thrilled beyond measure to find out someone took their work seriously enough to mark it up. And if it helps you in the process, get the pens out and go to town.
4. It aids in self-discovery
This plays off of reason 3 above, but goes further. Engaging in an author’s ideas forces us to think through what matters to us, how we undersand the world, and so on. “By discovering what authors think, feel, and care for, we find out who they are,” writes Thomas L. Jeffers in The Weekly Standard. But that’s only half of it. “By entering into dialogue with their books — annotating in the margins when we agree or disagree or when we aren’t sure — we define who we are.”
5. Writing in books is fun
To enjoy a book like that thoroughly I find I have to treat it as a sort of hobby and set about it seriously. I begin by making a map on one of the end-leafs: then I put in a genealogical tree or two. Then I put a running headline at the top of each page: finally I index at the end all the passages I have for any reason underlined. I often wonder—considering how people enjoy themselves developing photos or making scrap-books—why so few people make a hobby of their reading in this way. Many an otherwise dull book which I had to read have I enjoyed in this way, with a fine-nibbed pen in my hand: one is making something all the time and a book so read acquires the charm of a toy without losing that of a book.
Lewis is far more systematic than am I, but I take similar joy in marking up my books. How about you?