TSS: Do You Write in Books?

sunsalon1Certainly I am not the first person to pose the question “Do you write in books?” on a book blog, but ever since I saw the photos of some of the books the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas acquired from David Foster Wallace’s library, it has been on my mind. More specifically, I have wondered, why don’t I write in books?

After reading Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer last year, and agreeing wholeheartedly that as readers, we need to slow down, become more conscious of the actual words on the page, I wondered about how best to put that into practice. For that’s another thing: to read in such a manner does take practice. It is not something one simply decides to do and overnight puts it into practice. Why? Because reading in that way involves nuance. It involves being aware of what the writer is trying to do with words, with story, but also what we as readers–or writers, even–might find that’s significant to us. It seems to me suddenly obvious that the best way to do this kind of close reading is to write in books.

The notes in Wallace’s collection are all truly his: he’s written lists of words to look up (in Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermeister Papers, words like “telluric” and “fructuous”); he’s written phrases or dialogue from the text in the cover (in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run); he’s written notes to himself about the narrative’s progress (in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, where he writes “Set up is slow–does not set stage”). What an interesting picture we get, of writer and reader, almost in a sort of dialogue with one another.

In school I wrote in books, but it was not a practice I carried over into my “personal” reading. I have copies of novels I read for classes that are full of pencil marks, notes in the margins, and sticky notes. But I have books from that same time I read for pleasure that have not a mark anywhere. At some point I must have drawn a line between reading for study and reading for recreation. But this past month, while I was reading The Magus, how many times I wished to have a pencil in my hand to mark some word, some phrase, some passage in the text I thought might hold a clue. Of course, even if I had the pencil in my hand, I could not have made a mark, because it was a library book.

It would be stupid of me to go back to buying books simply because I might want to write in them. The library is a terrific place to “test drive” a book that one might want to buy. Let’s face it: not all books are worthy of our marks. But the ones that are–I am beginning to believe not only that they deserve a place on the shelf, but they deserve to have some evidence of my communing with them, something more than little flags. Yes, this means reading a book twice, three times, or four times, to capture everything, an activity that seems next to impossible not only when one is trying to climb Mount TBR, but also when one is trying to keep up with reviewing books for an audience, however small.

Some people use notebooks to great effect (see Matt, of A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook). I’ve tried that and find it disconnects me too much from the act of reading. Fumbling with book and notebook, trying to keep my place or hold the book open while I copy words into a notebook, I find that I become too self-conscious about the whole thing. What if I am copying down a passage I won’t even want to use later? What if there is another one that would be a better example of the prose style here, or would better display that metaphor, or show how that character has changed? I find myself writing something down every other page, afraid I will miss something, or have to return the book to the library before I get a chance to get everything down.

No, it is more organic for me to think about simply marking with a pencil, although I admit, the last time I tried it (Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, which I wrote in but never about), I felt a little guilty. I still wasn’t sure. But looking at Wallace’s books, it seems to me worth the risk and the practice, at least for those books we recognize immediately as saying something to us, individually, as readers.

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12 comments

  1. I’m guilty of constant pencil marking. I mark favourite passages, write notes on the margin, and scribble on the inside cover constantly. At least it’s in pencil, right? 😛 I find that this makes things much easier when the time to write my posts comes.

  2. Nymeth, yes…at least it’s in pencil! I was shocked to see RED pen in Wallace’s books! RED! I agree; I think making those notes probably makes things much easier. I am going to give it a shot with my own books, but I suppose for the library books I will have to keep relying on flags. I do need to get better at note keeping as I read.

  3. I don’t write in books anymore because you can’t trade them on Paperbackswap.com if they’ve been written in, even a little.

    But I love books that are written in. You used to be able to get them at second hand stores all the time. They were a bit cheaper. Reading them was a shared activity. I got the book, my reaction to it and the reaction of another reader. Sometimes a more insightful reader than I, sometimes a reader who didn’t understand the book at all.

    The Wallace books look like lots of fun, to me.

  4. I don’t take notes while reading really for two reasons — I rarely am reading in an easy location for it (much of my reading is in the car, in bed or outdoors) and I really don’t like to break the flow of the story. Sometimes I wish I had notes or at least some sort of sticky notes because I frequently get to the end of the book and wish I could find something I had mentally noted. Still, I’m not sure if I would ever write in the book because I’m a re-reader who likes to have a fresh start at a book each time. I wouldn’t want my next experience with a book to be overly influenced by the previous one. (Not to mention that I have a bad memory and would spend ages just trying to decipher what I meant by a short note in a margin!)

  5. I write a lot in books that I’m reading for school, and if I know I’m going to keep a book, I might mark key passages that I want to be sure to remember. It’s kind of fun to come back for subsequent readings and see what’s impressed me in the past.

    Like CB James, though, I also trade books on Paperbackswap, so I don’t mark in books I’m going to give away. One great little tool I’ve found too help me journal/mark is a pen with tiny sticky notes attached and a rubber band gizmo that you can use to attach it to your books. When I have it with me, I’ll just note my question or comment on the sticky and leave it on the page. Quick and easy and doesn’t feel like stepping away from the book in the way using a notebook does for me.

  6. CB, I also love books that are written in. Even if someone has just underlined passages, I always wonder why, think about what moved them to do so. I think it would be great fun to see Wallace’s library. It’s just too bad about how they got there, though.

    Kristen, thanks for visiting. That’s an interesting point about having a fresh re-read. I used to be a fanatical re-reader, but then I started blogging! Always on to the next book, you know. But I am trying to revive my re-reading habit. That’s very funny about having to decipher what you meant in notes. I keep a notebook where I scribble thoughts, and half the time I don’t know what I meant jotting down any of them, so I completely understand. 🙂

    Teresa, I think that’s why I kept all my books from school–I have fun looking at the notes, still. I have got to find one of those pens! Not only does it sound like it would help me out a bit, but it’s an excuse to go to the office supply store, or as I like to call it, heaven.

  7. I second your difficulty with notebooks! Writing notes in a notebook as I go along often takes me out of the book, which I find frustrating. It disrupts my happy reading experience. But on the other hand, I never find it useful to write in my margins, because I can’t imagine I’ll ever go back and actually read the notes. Plus a childhood spent helping out in school libraries has inculcated me with deep distaste for writing in books.

  8. I think at one point in my life I would have been horrified at the thought of writing in books but not so much anymore. I still don’t do it – I try to write in a notebook or use post-its – but I like finding little notes in used books. Makes me wonder about what the reader experienced when they read that particular line/paragraph, etc.

  9. You know…I don’t write in books I’m reading for me personally, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about them and slowing down! 🙂 I love rereading books, but it would drive me crazy to see what I thought a couple of years ago next to the author’s text. I can see the other side, though.

  10. Jenny, I would never write in a book that wasn’t my own. I personally think that is an act of vandalism, because the book belongs to the community. I do have books I marked in back in school, and I enjoy seeing my notes, although as Kristen said, I sometimes have no idea what my notes meant.

    Iliana, I like that experience, too. I don’t think I would take license to write in every book, but looking at Wallace’s collection made me think that there may be those special books I have read over and over, where it’s almost like they deserve to be written in, communed with. That probably sounds a bit wacky, but oh well. 🙂

    Eva, I completely get what you are saying about slowing down. I think, though, that what Wallace was doing was deep analysis, a real study. I think it might just be the difference in seeing the book as a reader versus as a writer, but I too see both sides.

  11. Like you I often wish for a pencil when I’m reading, to underscore passages which I find particularly interesting, or to note an idea or impression that pops into my head as I read. Many of my books are library books, so that’s impossible to do. In review books, I usually past a couple of large sticky notes inside the covers to write notes on…don’t know why I don’t write directly in the books. It seems silly not to, now, and maybe I will in future.

    I read much too fast. I gobble up books like jelly beans, and know I need to slow down and chew more thoroughly 😉

  12. Becca, I hear you about reading fast, although I myself liken it to Doritos. 🙂 When I read my next book for review that I own, I am going to make myself try using a pencil. We’ll see how it goes. I might wait until I get in 50-100 pages, though, to see if I think I’ll keep it. It’s easy enough to go back through those pages.

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