Writing in Books: A Creative Outlet or Cardinal Sin?

Books are a very sacred and divisive subject in the world. Some people believe that books must be kept in pristine condition at all times, while others believe it’s okay to take books apart and turn them into something new. Today, I’m going to talk about one particular kind of “defacing” of books that often causes a lot of controversy: Writing in books.

Personally, I don’t tend to write in my books. I have, but I don’t often write in books outside of textbooks, or novels I’m reading for classes – and since I’m no longer a student, that doesn’t really happen anymore. For example, one semester I was working on an essay over Thanksgiving at my aunt’s house, and I forgot a notebook, so this is the outline for my paper…

I often forget that outline is in there, so every time I pick the book up I laugh about it.

To get a more well-rounded answer to this debate, I posed the question on Facebook. I wrote: To my book-people friends: What are your thoughts on writing in books? Is it acceptable? Totally not okay? Give me your (long or short form) opinions! 

My friends didn’t disappoint:

My cousin Amber (from Palechick Studios) writes only in books that she loves and plans to keep, but won’t write in old or vintage books out of her respect for how long they’ve existed. She underlines passages which inspire her artistically and writes notes that relate to what she’s reading or about how what she’s reading makes her feel – a habit that started in college.

My friends Deedi and Mel both argued that writing in books is a great idea because it creates a bond and enhances a reader’s relationship with a book. Books “are meant to be loved,” Deedi said. Writing in books, Mel said, “can turn a novel into a diary of sorts” and disagrees with the argument that writing in books in any way devalues it. It makes the book more special to the reader, she said.

My cousin Bree, a teacher, said that her teacher instinct is to say “write away!” despite the fact that she doesn’t write in books herself. Like Deedi and Mel, she believes that writing in books you read can help enhance your relationship with it, and that encouraging young kids who struggle with reading to write in their books helps create an extra layer of understanding for them. “Reading is a personal experience,” she said, “and any connection a young person can make with a book can inspire them to keep reading.” I think that’s a brilliant point, if I do say so myself.

My best friend Kelsey had a lot of interesting comments. She underlines certain passages, but absolutely doesn’t write in the margins, because she very much believes that to be a sacrilegious act. Instead, she’ll copy posts down into her journal and write about what they meant to her there – almost as though they’re a creative writing prompt. “There’s a reason I’m a reader, not a writer,” she told me. “I don’t think I write in books because the passages I love usually leave me speechless. They struck a chord so strong I don’t have anything to say because the author already said it perfectly.” She adds, however, that she did write in textbooks – and who can blame her? Does anyone like nursing textbooks?

My girl Erin agreed with Kelsey. She keeps a journal with passages that are important to her, and said it’s “neat to get to look back and see what moved me at the time, and where I am in life now.” She also brought up a really interesting example of the book S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst, which I’ll discuss further in a little bit.

Kelsey’s husband Rich said writing in paperbacks is okay, particularly if you’re reading the book for a book club – makes sense! You want to know what you thought so you can discuss it. But he said other than that, he’s not a fan of writing in books.

My friend Alison highlighted her belief that books are works of art, and therefore she’ll never write in one, though she doesn’t have a problem if other people write in their own. As with many of the girls above, she believes that people writing in books means they’re really engaging with the text, so she’s glad that’s happening.

My other half, Bob, had a pretty straight reaction when I asked him his opinion. “No way,” he said, and violently shook his head. But his answer wasn’t about preserving books or respecting them. He doesn’t want to write in books because if he does, he can’t have a new perspective if he ever decides to reread the book. “I want to be able to have a new opinion,” he shrugged.

And finally, my friend Pat had the pretty simple reaction of not minding at all if people write in books. He didn’t mind highlighting books either until recently, when he bought a textbook with an entire page highlighted. Sigh, amateurs.

Those are a lot of varied opinions, and for me, I can’t disagree with the thought process behind any of them! I think I most closely agree with Kelsey’s sentiment of “I’m a reader, not a writer, for a reason” of these books. I take a lot of pictures of passages I like, and I talk a lot (here and other places) about why I like certain things, but for me, reliving those passages while rereading them is the best way to honor the book I enjoy so much.

So let’s talk about S. for a moment. JJ Abrams called this his “love letter to the written word.” And it’s a great description of it.

*To avoid spoilers for the book, this is from the “cover page” of Straka’s novel. It’s a great example of the conversations Eric and Jen have throughout the course of the story.*

There are two simultaneous stories in this book; there’s the actual “novel” The Ship of Thesus by V.M. Straka and in the margins of that novel there’s a separate story of Eric and Jen, two people who begin writing notes to each other in the margins, trying to solve the great mystery of “who is V.M. Straka.” They don’t even know each other when the ‘book’ begins. It’s a fascinating look at the world of writing in margins and the impact that has on how one reads a novel. When I read it, I was more drawn to the story of the margins than I was to the fictional novel they were looking for clues in. In fact, the fictional novel is really just a novel – it was written by a person and put into the world. It’s just a book, that exists with in another book. It’s one that I’ve always wanted to go back and reread, because I know I missed so much the first time around. And it makes a great case for writing in the margins! I’d recommend it to anyone who loves a good mystery.

SO, those are the opinions of me and many of the bookish people I care about in my life. What do you guys think, lovely readers?! Writing in books: yes or no?


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