Abuse Your Books

Marking up Books

Back in college, I always enjoyed the little craft tips professors and teachers would give you. For example, a philosophy TA I had once said that you have to work hard to maintain that naive curiosity about everything when you’re studying so that you make sure to question the little things that come along. Not question them as some way of baby-boomer armchair-rebellion, but as a spring-board for ideas, paper topics, and just general understanding of things.

One of the other tips which I use equally as much was from one of my English professors, as I recall, Professor Newton. The first day in class – Victorian Literature – in brought in a book he was currently reading and held it up, pointing out all the underlines and marginalia he had in it. He said something like: don’t be afraid to write in your books. Just rip them up, he said, write all over them.

Marking up Books

Until then, I’d always thought of books as sort of untouchable but by the eyes for reading. But, to me, what Newton was saying was to look at a book as more of a tool rather than something in a display case. A tool get used for a purpose, to an end, and you don’t spend a lot of time making sure it looks pristine. Well, some people do, but a box full of clean tools usually means they don’t get used, or you’re a little OCD.

I don’t write in books as much as I used to in college. To be frank, I don’t use books as much as much as I did back then: now they internet is my bookshelf, if you will. That said, as the Seth Godin book above shows, there’s still plenty of use for those tools.

To start with, it’s always good to bottom dog-ear pages that have something interesting on them, hopefully underlining or side-lining the parts that are good. I mean, you’ll probably want to look things up again. Another nice effect of the bottom dog-ear (that is, putting a dog-ear at the bottom of the page, rather than the top) is that you can quickly look at a closed book and get a sense for how interesting it was to you: presumably, the more bottom dog-ears, the more interesting.

Marking up Books

In the more fun category is putting what the date you started reading a book and where you were on the title page. I also write my name right above that which has made it easier to claim books I’ve lost. Sometime I’ll write a little note about what I was doing (like which conference I was going to or anything else interesting going on) too. Even less frequently, I’ll write the date I finished the book, but that can get a bit depressing.

When you’re trying to decipher an especially opaque train of thought – as was often the case in the philosophy books I read in school – I like to keep track of the argument being made with little summaries on the page. If things get especially obtuse, you can write little numbered items to refer back and forward to.

Marking up Books

Also, if you’re going to go totally nutty and just use the white space in books as paper. When I just had a book and a pen around (on a plane) I’ve written letters with those blank pages at the end of books.

0 thoughts on “Abuse Your Books

  1. My mother was a librarian; I never have gotten past keeping books in pristine condition. I use Post-It Flags to mark passages I want to remember or review, or keep notes separately. I understand this is borderline OCD, but it drives me crazy to see “defaced” books! I never even break the spine of a paperback if I can help it. My kids are big readers and don’t have this same compulsion, so I’m slowly getting over it. But still…


  2. Yes, the librarian syndrome seems to dominate for sure. There’s nothing like selling a box full of books to Half-Priced Books (where you’ll get, like $1.25 for the lot) to fix that up a bit ;)


  3. Like Klobetime, it’s sacrilege for me to see any other thing other than original text print on the books. Likewise again, I too use different colored Post-it flags in cases where I needed to write notes down. My mother was no librarian but from where we come from, books are a luxury few can afford so maybe that explains part of it.

    Yet, there were times when I wasn’t able to contain the urge to write, or highlight as well (thanks Stabilo). Solution? Bought another copy for the personal shelf. Yup, really dig Power of Myth when first read them.



  4. I second Britta’s suggestion. Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren also wrote How to Read a Book, which is a must-have for anybody doing any serious reading. I’ve given several copies of that book out as presents to people, and have a very dog-eared copy that I pull off the shelf on a fairly regular basis.


  5. I actually heard about that Cabinet article from another person recently — we were talking about the history of bookmarking technology (both analog and digital) and how Delicious is a form of annotation. I have an essay half-written about this…


  6. I don’t understand books better by highlighting or underlining, it doesn’t help me at all. Worse is when someone else has done it. The copy I have of my favorite 20th century book, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, has the first chapters heavily underlined and highlighted and I just tend to go “what, you highlighted that, but not that?”

    Marginalia is a different story…
    and of course, I prefer to edit text by pen rather than directly in Emacs. Nothing like a good strike-out.


  7. I’m a librarian who loves to annotate in a good book. I just make sure that it is one of my own and not one I’ve borrowed. I’ve lent books with notes and had friends comment on my notes (assuming they coud read my writing). Interesting conversation can evolve.


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