On Writing in Books

In Library Looking Glass, David Cecil wonders if writing in books is a bad practice. This is an issue about which many readers have firm convictions. Cecil admits it is certainly the wrong thing to do if a book is a “precious object, elegantly bound and on fine expensive paper.” But when it comes to the regular books we read, there is much to be said for it. Cecil says, “It helps to make a book seem more one’s own; and, unless what is written insults its author, it is a compliment to him. It treats him as a living man, with whom one wants, as it were, to converse.”

It is startling to read how similar Cecil’s routine is to mine: “In particular when anything in the text has especially struck me, I have noted on the end-paper the number of the page where this has occurred. Sometimes my note simply indicated admiration; but more often admiration of a special and personal kind. The passage referred to was beautiful or comical or well-written in ways that had a peculiar appeal to my own taste, or it stated a view which I found especially illuminating; or it stimulated in me a fruitful train of thought.”

However, I take two additional steps that Cecil apparently didn’t. When I have finished the book or however much I want to read, I copy each of the passages I have marked in a Word document. Following that, I insert them following those I have already collected in my Commonplace Book for the year. And at year’s end, I add the year’s collection to those I have been saving since 1988. In part, I do all this because the computer makes it so easy, maybe too easy. When Cecil started writing in his books, the computer was a distant dream, if that. Would he be saving his passages in electronic form today? My hunch is he would.

Of course, Cecil is talking about his own books, not those he obtained in the library. I am sure he would agree that making marks in a library book is inexcusable. But even worse is “defacing” your own books in a way that apparently Toby Lichtig does with abandon:

“…in my library anything goes: doodles, numbers, addresses, lists, recipes and the ensuing food stains.”…the marks and scrawls help me to recall the text—and crucially, the person I was when red it: how I was feeling, where I was sitting, whom I was with.”

Stephanie Hollmichel, the blogger at “So Many Books,” and a diligent keeper of a commonplace book, employs a much more civilized approach, indeed, although she marks her notable passages, it is one that doesn’t leave any marks in the book and is far more selective than the my procedure. Here is how she described her routine to me:

“When I read I keep a tin of page nibs by my side … and stick them on the pages at passages that particularly catch my attention. When I am done with the book I go back through it looking at all the passages I marked and take out the page nibs that mark passages that no longer seem all that interesting. Then I let the book sit for a day or two and go back and look at the still marked passages and make a final decision about which ones really speak to me and copy those out into my commonplace book.”

I don’t think any of these readers are going to get too excited about the iPad or any of the other e-book readers either. None of them make marking or collecting their favorite passages very straightforward. Indeed, Lichig remarks “…I intend to carry on reading as I always have: with an object I can physically alter; something I can damage with impunity. Ever-primed for action, my pen hovers restlessly just above the page.”

Mine does too, but I am certainly not going to scrawl anything across the page or leave coffee stains on it either.