Building a Family Reading Culture, 4: Writing in Books

(A part of a very occasional series, and by occasional, I mean I wrote the rest of it many moons ago here, here and here.)

Most of my college education took place in the margins of novels. J once commented that reading my undergrad copies of Jane Austen is like following a complicated math problem as I work through the relationships in any white space (J+B = E + D in virtue? C + C =/= Bennets???). As an adult, this penchant has continued, despite me often having to restrain myself in library books, loaners, and ebooks (which you can of course digitally mark up, but which remain a sort of barrier to entry in browsing).

So I’m a librarian, and I revere books, but I’m not afraid to mark them up a bit. We have a friend who won’t loan out books he’s written in. And I get that. Sometimes I look back at the thoughts of my 20-year-old self and I wince. Or, conversely, I’m reading a battered Thriftbooks paperback that does that thing where basically every sentence is highlighted for the first thirty pages and then there’s nothing. Because, yeah, someone obviously gave up here.

But marking in books — that ownership turns out to be awfully important.

A book is a conversation you enter, and while there’s a place for reverent listening, sometimes joining the conversation helps you engage with a book better. I loathe arriving at a book club discussion with an unmarked text, because I’m never going to be able to find the passages that particularly moved me, the one that answers my friends’ question, the bit that made me think of something else I’ve read. It’s more than that, though; even if I’m never going to discuss this book with a living soul, a discussion is still going on between me and the author as I read. Why not scrawl an arrow out to a stray thought that passed me by? Why not insert a coy exclamation mark at a funny passage, the way a favorite professor of mine would when she found a phrase she liked in your essay? Why not slow down and spend a little time underlining and savoring a passage you now hope will stick in your mind like a bur all your life?

When I do send a book out to a friend that I’ve scribbled in, I like to feel like someone new is now entering into the conversation between me and the author. My friend Abbey recently borrowed my much-beloved copy of The Catholic Table and made a comment on Instagram about the multi-layered pleasure of reading something alongside a kindred spirit, a kind of literary communing that is quieter and more intimate than a book club discussion or even scattered texts over the course of a reading.

We are not living in an era of illuminated manuscripts. Books are called mass market for a reason and are easy come, easy go. There is no reason why you shouldn’t leave your own mark (halting, ignorant as it may be) in something you hope sometime to revisit. It makes the book more fully yours, and that is, after all, what having a home library is all about.

My sister and I reading on a ferry as kids

4 thoughts on “Building a Family Reading Culture, 4: Writing in Books

  1. i’m a “write-in-books” person, too! and i dog-ear my pages. and i love borrowing books from others who have done the same. it really IS like a conversation.

    side note: bummed we are too far away to exchanged marked-in books.


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