5 reasons you should write in your books

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

In researching for her book, The Magician’s Book, Laura Miller came upon a letter by C.S. Lewis in which he describes the joy of properly inking a page:

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?

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • http://anam-cara.typepad.com Shelia

    Well written post, Joel. I concur heartily. Regarding point number 3, I had the opportunity to have a converstion with Louis Markos a couple of years ago. I had his book, Lewis Agonistes in my hand. At one point he picked up my book to show me a certain passage…my highlighted, underlined book with notes and personal reflections all over it. At first I was embarassed, til I saw his face light up. He was gratified to see the book had so provoked me, and enjoyed my notes on the passage in question. Were I an author, I am certain I would feel the same.

  • http://evaulian-thebestoftheworst.blogspot.com/ Eva Ulian

    Oh yes, always marked a book ever since I can remember- just in case I miss a gem.

  • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

    Thanks for the additional perspective, all. Cool to see that writing in your books actually increases their value and improves the experience with them.

  • http://www.davidteems.com/wordpress David Teems

    Just don’t write in library books. That has cost me already. I learned to use post-it flags. Otherwise, I can hardly let a page go by without some kind of violation.

  • http://www.pricebonus.com/ Michelle

    Just don’t write in library books. That has cost me already. I learned to use post-it flags. Otherwise, I can hardly let a page go by without some kind of violation.

  • http://www.dirtywhistle.com/ George

    Oh yes, always marked a book ever since I can remember- just in case I miss a gem.

  • http://www.irishearth.com/ Lee

    Well written post, Joel. I concur heartily. Regarding point number 3, I had the opportunity to have a converstion with Louis Markos a couple of years ago. I had his book, Lewis Agonistes in my hand. At one point he picked up my book to show me a certain passage…my highlighted, underlined book with notes and personal reflections all over it. At first I was embarassed, til I saw his face light up. He was gratified to see the book had so provoked me, and enjoyed my notes on the passage in question. Were I an author, I am certain I would feel the same.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      That’s awesome. Thanks for confirming the suspicion.

  • http://jeffreyholton.blogspot.com Jeff Holton

    Must steal this post. I would write all over it, but I’m reading this on my work laptop and the company might frown on observing the damage.

    Number three is the key point for me. It’s writing in books that has actually led TO dialogue with authors. I also dialogue with myself. It’s interesting to pull out a book I haven’t read in a decade and see how wrong I was. Embarrassing at times, but nice to know that we can grow.

  • Bonnie

    The first book I marked up was my copy of “Go Dog Go”. I put my name on every page as my older sister was claiming it was hers, the audacity. That incident started a habit. I’ve been marking up my books ever since. Thanks for the validation.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Any time. I love “Go Dog Go.”

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  • http://forrest-long.blogspot.com Forrest Long

    Some books are just too nice to write in, like my two volumes of the latest edition of the Prologue that I read daily for my devotions- sometimes I write notes and quotes in a separate notebook. I do that with some books. But the rest- at least the nonfiction- I underline, make notes, arrows, stars, etc. I want to be able to go back and find important things I’ve read. And when I’m gone whoever gets my books can see my thoughts and areas of interest in my reading.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      I’m a little nervous about that last part. I’ve gone back and read stuff I wrote five years ago in the margin of one book or another and have been embarrassed.

  • http://gailbhyatt.wordpress.com/ Gail Hyatt

    My very favorite thing about reading is writing in the books! I love this post. I feel so validated now. :-)

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      I don’t know how people read books without marking them up. I even do it in novels if they’re particularly good.

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  • Harlemite

    You’ve been missed, Mr. Miller. Glad to have you writing again. :)

    • Joel J. Miller

      This is just a slight update on an older piece, but I do hope to get back into things. It was an accidental hiatus. I’ve been diverted on a series of projects and haven’t been able to carve out the time.

  • http://outofegyptblog.wordpress.com/ Fr. James Guirguis

    Glad to see you back to posting, Joel. A welcome addition to the email inbox!

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks, Fr. James. This is an updated retread, but I’m back.

  • http://www.christianityboard.com/ Denver

    Many years ago now I recall whining about having to write in the margins for my summer reading. The “overbearing” freshman English teacher who forced us to do this was caricatured by my group of friends, as we saw no point in writing in something that was intended rather clearly for reading.

    Just a few months ago, I came across the first book I read while practicing this new art (Lord of the Flies). I was able to fairly clearly recall plot details, discussions and other specifics of the book.

    It works, and I am grateful to that teacher for this lesson. My issue is getting past the bibliophilia and just writing in the darn thing. It won’t end literature as we know it, I promise.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Great example. Thanks for sharing that.

  • TheReluctantWidow

    I love marking up my books. In fact, I recently lost a book I was reading and I was devastated not because I had to buy a new copy but because of all my margin notes. Who knows what I lost intellectually. I may not be struck by the same passages or thoughts next reading. Sad, so sad.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Great point. You’re adding value to the book when you write in it — at least for you. And it can be significantly valuable.

    • K Ruth Burrough

      My friend borrowed a ministry book from me a while ago and left it in his bag with a squished banana. He thought I wouldn’t notice if he returned a newly purchased copy… But all my notes were missing!


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