You don’t need an iPad or e-reader to engage interactively with a book. Ever since books were invented, readers have been using the humble pencil or pen to write notes in books. But, as TIM GRAHAM writes, many of us irrationally believe that it’s a frightfully naughty thing to do.
Some people try to impress friends and acquaintances by filling their shelves with books – many of them unread – in the hope that this will make visitors think that they’re quite the well-read highbrow. But this is a trick that I could never pull off. Anyone familiar with my reading habits knows that if I’ve purchased a book and read it, then it will be filled with my
notes, questions, summaries and underlinings, all made with a soft 6B pencil. And no, in case you’re wondering, I don’t make these marks on Post-it notes; I write directly on the pages of
the book. These markings enable anyone riffling through my books to easily distinguish the books that I’ve spent many hours ruminating over from those that have lain untouched. So I can’t fool anyone into thinking that I’ve read a book when I haven’t.
What do I write in my books' If I find a sentence or phrase that shows great skill in using language, or that compellingly argues a point, then I’ll underline it. If the impressive writing
continues over too many lines for me to underline quickly, then I’ll make a vertical line in the margin instead, and maybe add an exclamation mark to indicate that this section really grabbed my attention. If I spot an editing error, I might write an ‘E’ in the margin. If something funny leaps out at me, then I’ll underline it and put an ‘H’ – for ‘humour’ – next to it. When I’m reading a book that I’m going to review in gr, and I come across something that is worthmentioning in the review, then I’ll write ‘FR’ – ‘for review’ – next to it. And I constantly mark
words whose meanings I don’t know or which I’m a bit unsure of, and keep a list of themin the back of the book. Later on I look up their definitions in a dictionary. All this marking
enables me to come back to the book at another time and quickly find what I’m looking for.
Often an author will write something that puzzles me, which prompts me to write a question mark next to the baffling phrase. If a statement has really flummoxed me, then I might
put multiple question marks beside it. Sometimes I’ll write a question to the author in the margin or at the top of the page, in the hope that I might one day send them an email asking
them to clarify what they’ve written.
But all this brazen scrawling in books has scandalised and even enraged some people. I once loaned a book to a former colleague, and when she returned it to me, she told me that
her partner had said that I ‘ought to be shot’ for having written in the book. This was my own book – I never mark library books or books that other people have loaned to me – yet this
woman’s boyfriend thought that I’d almost committed a capital offence.
Ordering primary schoolchildren to never write in books must be part of the curriculum of teacher training, because it seems that so many people are mortally afraid of taking a pencil (or
pen, in the case of some people I know) to a book, even though doing so would enable them to more easily mark out parts of the book that they might need to refer to later. Many books are now produced on paper of such poor quality that they don’t deserve the excessive reverence that so many readers accord them. And in any case, aren’t the ideas expressed in the book themost valuable thing, and the physical book itself just a vessel – and an easily reproducible one –for those ideas? It’s not as if we live in times of want, when books are scarce resources that needto be preserved in immaculate condition for the next reader. In any case, I think that reading agood book that’s been marked by a thoughtful reader is like getting to read a book and a half:not only do you get a fabulous read, but you get all kinds of thought-provoking questions andother interesting marginalia from the engaged reader who preceded you.
Children, on the whole, tend to be obedient. I once heard an evolutionary theorist speculate that the tendency to obey in children was a survival trait. If children are inclined to heed the warnings of a parent, and thereby avoid walking off cliffs or into fires, then they will probably survive long enough to reproduce and pass on this tendency to their own offspring. So as children it’s likely that we’re predisposed by evolution to take notice of the warnings of our elders. And when a teacher or parent tells us that writing in books is a frightfully wicked
thing to do, we tend to take notice. But, as with many things learned in childhood, such as acquiring a taste for junk food, these early lessons don’t necessarily serve us well as adults. We now have our own income and can buy books of our own and do with them as we please.
But the childhood lesson about writing in books is so ingrained that many of us fail to see that there will be no disastrous consequences if we make notes in our own books that will help us to better assimilate the book’s contents.
What could be holding so many of us back from cheerfully picking up a pencil and interacting with our own books? For many of us it could be the fear about what other people will think of us. Will my friends think that I’m an uncouth, analphabetic brute if they find out that I write in my books? Will everyone think I’m like that naughty boy from my Year 3 class who expressed his annoyance at being forced to read by scribbling vulgarisms in his primer?
When I worked in a bookshop I was contacted one day by the widow of Dr Rudolph Brasch, a Sydney rabbi and a well-known author of many popular books. Mrs Brasch needed to shift the books owned by her late husband, so she called us in to assess his huge library. The books were a fascinatingly varied collection, covering travel, history, religion and more. But many of them were filled with Dr Brasch’s underlinings and
notes – in pen. His marginal notes probably helped him to retain the information he read, and therefore research and write more effectively. The resale value of his library might have been reduced, but what did that matter to him once he had died? And he wrote with such eloquence that no-one could ever accuse him of being an illiterate vandal.
So let’s shake off the obsolete lessons of childhood. Let’s set aside the prissy injunctions against writing in our books, pick up our pencils, and start treating our books less like fetish objects to be worshipped and more like the venues for robust engagement with authors that they really are.
From the June, 2012 magazine.