Writing in the Margins

While reading a recent issue of our Sunday paper’s Parade Magazine, I went against my habit of avoiding the advice columns and skimmed the “Ask Marilyn” section for some juicy tidbits from other people’s lives.  One person wrote in with a question that really irked me.  I’ll quote it for you, to see if you find something unsettling about it as well:

Dear Marilyn,

My uncle Jim owns hundreds of books, and all have his handwriting in them!  He writes thoughts in the margins, strikes through paragraphs he thinks are unnecessary, labels some passages as illogical, circles words that are new to him on first reading, and more.  What do you have to say about this practice?  –Tina

Here’s Marilyn’s response:     

Dear Tina,

I say, “Hooray for Uncle Jim!”  He’s an active reader, and mass-produced modern books aren’t sacred.  Their content is what matters.  Unless the books belong to someone else or are intended to be sold or given away, I am 100% in favor of this cerebral activity.  –Marilyn

I’ll give Marilyn some credit.  She acknowledges that it’s okay to write in books at least some of time.  However, for being the magazine’s “savant,” she certainly doesn’t comprehend the full potential for writing in one’s books.  Marilyn seems to think that we should only write in mass-produced books that are in our own personal collection.  I, on the other hand, don’t have such strict limitations on my marginalia.

I love writing in my books, each and every one of them.  You’ll rarely find me reading a book without at least one writing implement near by.  How else are you supposed to react to what the author is saying?  My favorite way to write in books is with a mechanical pencil, one of those plastic, disposable types, especially pink ones with white erasers.  I’ll nibble pensively on the eraser while I read each page and eagerly click down on it when it’s time to scribble something in the margin.  Sometimes it’s simply a little star to highlight a main point.  Every so often, I’ll underline an especially memorable quote.  If a character says something disagreeable, I’ll banter with them for awhile in the margin.  Authors I love and authors I strongly disagree with earn the most pen marks per page.  I’m largely ambivalent to those somewhere in the middle, but I’ll still write the occasional note. 

When you write in your margins, loaning your books is a greater gift.  You bestow upon your friends your thoughts in addition to those of the author. If you have my enthusiasm for this sort of interaction, you’ll encourage them to converse with you in the margins, to engage with both you and the author in their own notes.  In this way, your books become more alive with each successive reading.

I can even make a strong case for writing in public library books.  What, is that a large collective gasp I hear?  I recently checked out a book on evangelism called Out of the Salt Shaker and Into the World.  It was a terrific book, for those of you looking for something on that topic.  The copy was worn from previous readings. It had been checked out many times before.  Someone who read it before me had made some excellent notes.  She underlined many lines that had struck a chord with my spirit and had convicted me.  Her marginalia were in a soft hand that seemed so thoughtful and committed to this same purpose.  I felt like we were on the same journey together, two women on the same paths, struggling with the same issues, searching for the same answers.  The book was published 30 years ago, and it’s quite possible that the woman wrote those notes that long ago.  I’ll never know.  However, a bond was formed in the reading of that text, one that wouldn’t exist if she’d never have written in that library book.  My reading of the text was certainly enhanced by her notes, and I might not have gotten so much out of the book without her as my reading companion.

The experience reminded me of one of my favorite short stories, written by Max Lucado.  It goes by different names, sometimes called “The Pen Pal,” others “The Test,” sometimes “The Rose,” but the story is based on an older story, possibly a true life one, published in the 1940s, about a couple that met after a man read a library book that had a woman’s notes in it.  I found an online copy of the story.  It’s worth a read sometime, especially if you’re a romantic at heart:  http://www.highonlife1.com/thetest.htm.

The next time you hold a book in your hands, try holding a pen or pencil as well.  It might take some time to undo all those years of training from your parents who told you not to color in your books, or from your teachers who told you not to write in the school’s books. You never know who will read that book next. Firmly grasp your writing implement, and boldly make your mark. 

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I write in my books – couldn’t imagine doing it any other way!!

  2. Thank God!! I thought I was the only one. I write in the margins ALL the time. I actually read a book twice. I learned way back then to speed the first time. Then go back and get knee deep into the words. I circle, underline, put boxes around and put in exclamations points. People who borrow my books, I always tell them because they are in for a big surprise when they see my markings. But I cannot tell you how many times I go back after years and say, man look what I have accomplished thru God. WOW!

  3. Official card carrying MLS Librarian here:

    Please use pencil lightly when writing in books. Pen ink tend to eat through the pages in no time.
    DON’T write in rare books.
    DON’T get a big black felt tip to cross out “dirty” words (like “bottom”…that’s a joke)in library books.
    Sometimes Christians decide to censor books in that manner. Ugh.

    I’ve been in groups where we have passed one copy around to read and mark up. Love it! Wish I knew others to do it with now. In some ways more fun than a book club.

  4. Slow night at work….I’m enjoying reading your older posts.


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