Writing in books: an incomplete manifesto

I posted recently about missing having constant access to university libraries. I miss it so much, I still miss it, even though I am making the absolute most of the temporary access I currently have. I have been spending a great deal of time in the dusty, silent, lightless joy that is Robarts. (If its exterior looks familiar to you, but you’ve never been there: this building features in a Resident Evil film (number 17 maybe?) as a prison. No doubt it feels that way to some Red Bullioned undergraduates, but not to me, no.)

I have been browsing a great deal simply for pleasure, but have also been doing some research on various secret things which will feature in a review essay I’m writing on Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge. Best of all, I’ve been reminded of the conversations that occur in the margins of books that pass through so many hands. Scholars of various levels of education and ability arguing with each other around the arguments of earlier scholars’ published work. I love that. The internet can’t replace this, in part because the intertextual arguments I’m thinking of can occur only one layer at a time; only one person can be reading the book, and so the commentary grows up and out like the rings of a tree. Or, at least, people are actually able to finish talking before the next person can begin.

I know what you’re thinking: SCANDAL! She’s advocating writing in books!! Burn her!!! She turned me into a newt!

Well, I suppose I am advocating for writing in publicly available books, yes, but in a very particular way. I have no doubt railed against those who write in books; I certainly stopped doing so many years ago, but not before I either began or continued an infinity of conversations in books at the school where I did my PhD. I stopped doing it out of pure horror, but was recently convinced that maybe I shouldn’t have either stopped or felt so terrible about it.

I received an email from my thesis supervisor a few months ago; she’d borrowed a book from that university library and recognized the guilty hand-writing all over it as mine. I was shame-faced, I sputtered, I passed my hand shakily over my brow, I lamented. But she told me, no, my notes were useful to her and made an extremely pertinent point: “Always write in books– that is the only way there can ever be a history of reading.” Yes. Dammit, yes!

And then I began thinking about all the joy I’d gotten out of finding notes that were made in books before I got to them, notes made before I could read, notes made before I was born. I remembered how much more civilized those arguments were, and I suspect still are, than the arguments found on so many online forums. How much more POLITE. Would it be too much of a stretch to suggest that respect for books–as opposed to the disposable, ephemeral nature of the internet and its objectless reading–inspired respect in discussing those books even as they were, arguably, being defaced?

Which, of course, brings us back to the issue of the scandal: is it really disrespectful to write in books? I suppose it depends on what’s being written and why, but personally, if I were an author-author I’d feel much more satisfied with myself if all my books in the library were covered in others’ comments about them. I’d feel as though I’d done something incredibly right. Does this make sense? I think good writing and good ideas invite good readers to forgo restraint and respond. At least, I hope so.

My Nana wrote in books constantly. She wrote her name, the date, the place. She commented on every single thing. All her books were interleaved with newspaper clippings, photos, cards, letters–all also covered in her thoughts. She loved those books so much she tried to mingle her words with theirs, forever and forever. She respected them so much she couldn’t help but engage. She was the best.

I’m currently reading George Meredith’s Sandra Belloni, a book I borrowed from the university library. It’s not full of notes. It’s got only the original owner’s signature at the front and a few notes at the back. This edition is from 1909 and it’s clear from the hand-writing and ink quality that so was the original owner. (On a whim, I googled the owner, Ada Jean Scott, and I found her listed in something called The Society Blue Book, 1902 edition.) This is what she wrote at the back of the book:

Notes on Sandra Belloni–

Attacks on sentimentalists

Passion–noble strength on fire

Noble strength on fire! Ada, you were a poet. (Unless Meredith wrote that; if he did, I haven’t gotten to it yet.) I think you were also generous, for your lovely book ended up in a good place. But not in a place that inspired much conversation, sadly. Which, frankly, I can’t understand. If I were working on the Victorians, I’m certain I’d have a great deal to say about this book, and I’m not even halfway finished with it. But more on this anon.

Laments and excuses or whatever aside, Ada wasn’t writing in a library book; she was writing in her own book. Still, I really wish someone had argued with her. Or even just asked: How can Meredith be treating sentimentalists with so much critical rigour and be unironically praising the very emotion they most celebrate (or think they do)? It’s a question I’m asking myself because right now, Meredith is presenting the paradox quite comfortably for inspection without really problematizing it.

You see my point. Or you don’t. But having briefly taken on the righteous indignation that only the guilty can sincerely feel, I’ve come around again and I’m in favour of writing in library books, under two conditions. First, it has to be in pencil; it looks more elegant, and pen seems somehow too aggressive. Second, the comments must be thoughtful. None of this internet-ish name-calling, character-impugning, badly spelled, misdirected anger.

Ada Jean Scott, reader of books, thinker of poetic thoughts.
Ada Jean Scott, reader of books, thinker of poetic thoughts.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. I tend to abhor people writing in library books. It seems like poor stewardship of something that needs to last for generations. . Post it notes obviate the actual need to rite on a page. And anyone using a pen or highlighter should be thrown in jail. But I am kind of sympathetic to your argument. The accretion of insight over time of various users is kind of interesting…ooh, I just don’t know.

    1. Colleen says:

      I see your point too; it’s not that I don’t see this as unclear and problematic. But right now, I would rather see marginalia than not. 🙂

  2. For the record I love all 47 Resident Evils. Here, writing in books is usually limited to zealots pointing out lies in science books “No way the earth is more than 6,000 years old.”, “Radio carbon dating is the work of the devil.”, or “Lies, lies, lies, all part of the liberal agenda.” (with a much poorer spelling).

    I never wrote in books, but you point is valid. I had to read “A Doll’s House” close to as many times as Mila Jovovich has played Alice. I kept a sheet of notes at the end of my personal copy of the book. A student asked to borrow the book and I loaned it to her. A few days later she gave me the book back and thanked me for leaving the notes in it. She read the play and made her notes and then found my noted tucked in the back. She was relieved that her notes were nearly identical to mine. So it did help. But she had to read everything first instead of consulting the marginal information.

    I thought making notes in the margins went out of style after the middle ages, until I learned that the middle ages never really happened. The earth isn’t that old, and some liberal made the whole thing up. #Texas

    1. Colleen says:

      Ha, I’m glad to have found another book-loving Resident Evil fan. Watching RE films on Festivus eve is a traditional in our house. Nothing says peace on earth and goodwill towards men like clones and zombies!

      As for crazy marginalia, I haven’t had the pleasure of finding any yet…but I’ll be looking. And going to the library a lot if I’m ever in Texas. 😉

  3. heidenkind says:

    I am definitely a marginaliac. That’s actually one of the things I dislike more about eBooks, that’s there no possible way to have marginalia. I’ve done my share of writing in books and learning from the notes other people (read: grad students) left, as well.

    Oh, I’m reading Revenge, as well. Can’t wait to see what you think of it!

    1. Colleen says:

      Aha, a kindred spirit! Do you think grad school made us this way, or that we naturally ended up in grad school because we tended towards writing in books and looking for it?

      I’ve read Revenge twice and am now writing the world’s longest essay on it. I’ll post when it’s complete! But I LOVED it, and hope you did too.

  4. Stefanie says:

    I had the fear of librarians drilled into me at a young age so never dared write in a library book though I admit to coming across some excellent library book marginalia when I was in college. Now, as a librarian, I can’t officially advocate writing in library books, but I must say I find your two conditions acceptable and wouldn’t mind coming across such notes in borrowed books. I might even be tempted to add to them. But shh, don’t tell 🙂

    1. Colleen says:

      Your secret is safe with me. I really missed my calling as a librarian I think.

  5. Alex says:

    Do you know Helene Hanff’s book ’84 Charing Cross Road’? She loved getting second hand books that had notes written in them precisely because she felt she was entering into a conversation with whoever had owned them before.

    1. Colleen says:

      I know of this book but haven’t read it. I’ve theoretically wanted to read it but sometimes find reading books about books too disruptive; by which I mean, they remind me too constantly of the fact that I’m reading and I can’t stop being distracted by and aware of the fact, to the point where it’s very hard to read. Complicated.

  6. Your Nana sounds great, reading about those books that get passed down that have notes and other memories between the pages is fascinating.

    1. Colleen says:

      My nana was great. My dad is supposed to send me some of her stuff, hopefully soon…

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