Writing in Books: Valuable Marginalia or Graffiti?

As a life-long bibliophile, it’s easy to admit I consider books so much more than merely ink on paper. You want to see me freak out? Use a book as a coaster for your drink. Crack the spine of a paperback. Or dog-ear the corners of the pages. When I’m reading, I bask in the peace some people find in church. Defacing a book is the equivalent of putting Cheez Whiz on a communion cracker.

That said, for decades, I would never even consider writing in a book. That kind of graffiti ranked right up there with the sacrilegious coaster thing. But I did pardon that sin for one exception: college textbooks. Why not? Everyone else was doing it. (Just try to find a used textbook *without* highlighting and margin notes!)

Yes, I, too, sullied those margins daily; it helped me learn the material, collect my thoughts about a particular passage, and served as a study guide to prep for tests.

When I began my self-study of the writing craft, I continued the practice as a way to mentally Post-It Note the concepts I wanted to remember. Somehow it seemed okay to engage with the content in a book where the author had provided a feast of information for my consumption. But what if I don’t like what the author is serving? Is it defacing the book if you counter with your own opinions in the margins? Apparently, that wasn’t uncommon in the eras of Charles Darwin, William Blake, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, and Walt Whitman, among others, who were known to write commentary in other people’s books.

In the Newberry Library, those books reside in a climate-controlled vault and are considered valuable *because of* the marginalia. According to that recent NY Times article, the margin notes are thought of as fodder for literary archeology, revealing insights to the readers of that time period.

Hmmm… I never thought of it like that.


Do you write in your books? Nonfiction and fiction? Does coming across the marginalia of others give you a greater insight to the book? If you’re a serial marginalia-ist, are you reluctant to embrace digital books?

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