Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hooray for Fellow Margin-Scribblers

The other day, there was an essay in THE OREGONIAN by Douglas Yocum decrying the tendency to write in books and insisting people should cease and desist, that it ruined the books for future owners and for sales.  I felt sad when I read it.  I disagreed.  Today, I rejoice because it is clear I was not alone.  Three letters to the editor and two columns in the Sunday book section (one by writer Natalie Berber and the other by teacher-writer Tim Gillespie) all responded to that essay, and all with variations on my own feelings.

Notes in the margins are a way to take part in the great cross-spatial, cross-temporal conversation that is the written word.  When you write and highlight and underline in your books, you are interacting with the text, giving it the kind of life it was meant to have.  For no written text can fully exist without a reader, any more than a play can fully exist without an audience.  The only exception to this "go-ahead-and scribble", of course, is books that don't belong to you - school textbooks, library books, books borrowed from a friend.

If someone else wrote in a book I now own, it gives that book life and history.  It widens the conversation.  It connects me, in a mysterious and particular way, to that unseen hand that scribbled the notes or highlighted the words.

I remember in high school coming upon a copy of a small collection of Persian tales that had belonged to my father.  All sorts of notes, reactions and responses were furiously scribbled in the margins and the pages and the inside cover.  It gave me a special kind of insight into my father's inner world, a gift I wouldn't trade for a million pristine copies of that same book.

I've just begun rereading WUTHERING HEIGHTS.  Some of the earliest clues to the real story of Cathy and Heathcliff are uncovered by the narrator through Cathy's scribblings inside her books. The narrator's relationship with Cathy's old books invites us, the reader, to interact with his tale as well.

I rejoice in knowing that there are so many book lovers like me, folks who understand the literary equivalent of the story of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT.  If I ever manage to get one of my books published, I hope it will be as well-loved as the Skin Horse in that tale, dog-eared, with coffee-stains and bookmarks and scribblings inside.  I must confess, I doubt that digital texts, no matter what their affordability or convenience, will ever receive that same kind of love.


  1. With respect, I have to disagree here. While I can ignore notes in the margins, in my experience, I can't read books with highlighter marks (or pen underlining). It prevents me from taking in the work as a whole, instead forcing my eye to certain words, which might or might not have been the words the author wished me to pay most attention to. I am channeled down a specific path or interpretation and not allowed to find my own way.

    A few years ago, Joe purchased a copy of Donald Barthelme's "Snow White" from Powell's. To his dismay it had ballpoint pen underlining throughout. When he went to return the book he was given a replacement copy and told to keep the highlighted one, as "we can't sell it like that."

    If you want to interact with your own books by writing in the margins or highlighting them, feel free to do so. Perhaps you are doing some future readers a favor. But not all. And if finding notes in the margins and big blocks of highlighter or underlining throughout a text creates for you a spiritual connection between you and a previous reader, I'm delighted for you. But it does exactly the opposite for me.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jamie. It's always good to have a variety of perspectives.

  3. I wonder how this will be viewed in the next century? If things continue in a similar technological direction then more and more books will be read electronically. Will we have to create an app to "write in the margins" or will future books be able to connect to a database that collects all readers thoughts that they wish to share? My sci-fi mind will contemplate that for awhile.

    Also, while I like to engage with others over the written word, I do have a distinct preference to engage with the author first before being influenced by other interpretations of that author's work. That way I can formulate a starting point that is really from me and my current state of mind. As I explore deeper then I change and grow, but I know the roots a firmly within myself.


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