Last week there was this interesting opinion piece in the SundayReview of The New York Times, Scribbling in the Margins. The writer, Andrew D. Scrimgeour argued that readers writing in their books is the greatest tribute to authors. I thought that that’s an interesting stand because I’m in two pieces about writing inside books. As much it helps elevate engagement with a text at hand, I can’t help but think of it as defacing a book.
When it comes to my novels, I simply cannot bring myself to write in them or highlight a quote that catches my attention. I want to keep them in pristine condition, so that when I reread them in future, I’ll have new experiences when I read them. Of course, it’s not like reading them for the first time because I already know what happens but reading a clean copy allows me to form opinions rooted in that time in which I read a book, without worrying what I might have thought five years ago.
Then there are my academic books. If anyone of them is clean, it is because I didn’t even crack the spine. How I passed those modules still amazes me sometimes. Anyway, I always made it a point to buy new books, so I could write my own thoughts, highlight what I deemed important. I never liked second-hand books because reading someone else’s handwriting and notes annoyed me so, it was almost too much to bear. Instead of studying, I’d just glare at all those notes made by someone else instead of me. Generally, I always thought highlighting and writing in my books allowed me to better absorb the material.
My de facto method was to go at my textbooks with multiple highlighters. I had some colour coding thing going on, to which I’ll probably forget what each colour stands for latest in a year or so, seeing how I sat for my last exam early December. I think pink was for all the main points, orange for elaboration, blue for definitions, green for the overarching ideas, purple for things discussed in class and yellow for things I didn’t quite understand, so I’d remember to check with my profs or TAs. Very elaborate and a possibly overly time-consuming system but once I was done “colouring” my pages, I just had to glance at them to know what I needed to know.
Thing is, whenever I grabbed my highlighters, I had to use a ruler, or I would freak out at all the crooked lines. Whenever I was doing readings on the subway then, I usually just sat there with a pencil in hand. Rather than taking in all the points, explanations, etc, I would tease out all the keywords; circle them, draw triangles or some other shapes to distinguish them; then connect them to form webs of knowledge. Since I knew I’d be able to erase those lines, it didn’t bother me as much if they weren’t all that straight. Also, since I very much preferred colourful pages when studying, at least those webs broke down the texts a little, so they didn’t look so daunting to me anymore.
Ultimately, the most efficient method was to use one highlighter and a pencil. That way I could still highlight the main points, and make connections between all the different ideas. Whenever I used that method, I would end up writing thoughts in the margins as well, or notes to clarify and break down ideas, so that I wouldn’t need to dissect whole chunks all over again when revising for exams. By and large this method served me well throughout most of my university studies. Even now, when I look at all these notes, I can still recall a lot of the things that went through my mind when I read all those books. In the event that I don’t, reading notes scribbled in the margins allow me to go back in time and revisit my thought processes. I can also see how I matured in thought over time, as my notes became more insightful.
Writing in my academic books though also added to my apprehension of writing in my novels. Textbooks, I learnt, are usually made of thicker paper, so they hold up when they come in contact with ink. Books not printed specifically for academic purposes usually aren’t printed on that kind of paper.
Looking at one of my A Level books I used for Theatre Studies and Drama, it is very evident that that book was not printed on ink-friendly paper. That’s why my course mates and I always made photocopies of scripts that we needed to memorize for performances, so that we could mark them to our heart’s content. However, we were only allowed to bring original copies of books into the exam halls for the A Levels, so I had no choice but to make my markings in those books. Needless to say then, the only fiction books I ever wrote in were those I studied for Literature, and also for Theatre Studies and Drama. Other than those, I always made sure to keep my books clean of markings.
How do you feel about writing in books? Do you read with a pen in hand, or do you fiercely guard the purity of the pages of your books?