My Geeky Resolution: Write in the Margins

Geek Culture


"Eumenides with an inscribed calendar." Photo by Flickr user oedipusphinx, used with Creative Commons License.

I don’t write in books. I don’t even like writing my name in them, even though my mom taught me I should. If I do, it’s usually in pencil, lightly.

I suppose it’s for the same reason that I keep all my original board game boxes when I transfer the games to smaller boxes: just on the slightest chance that someday I’ll tire of something and want to sell it or give it away, I want it to be in as pristine condition as possible. That’s my best guess, and it’s not entirely rational. It’s not like I think someday my books will become a public library — and generally I try to stick to buying books that I’d want to keep anyway, so I’m not as likely to give them away.

But there’s some part of me that just cringes at the idea of putting a pen — or even pencil — to my books. I have a study Bible that is mostly free of highlighting, underlines and notations. I even have trouble sometimes writing in workbooks that are meant to be written in.

I certainly didn’t get this from my parents. I remember flipping through their old books and finding words underlined—as non-native English speakers I know they often had to look up unfamiliar words—and I loved finding my dad’s doodles of Snoopy or Woodstock in the margins of old Peanuts collections. It’s fun to read a book and know that I’m following in somebody’s footsteps, to see traces of of their progress through the text.

I remember hearing an episode of This American Life called “The Book That Changed Your Life.” Act One is about Alexa, who started exploring her grandfather’s books when she was seven. She grew to know him through the notes he left in the margins, and his books literally changed her life. The story appeals to me—one of the things I’ll leave behind when I die is a big collection of books, and I think the selection says something about who I am. But I realized that my children (or anyone else who’d be interested) probably wouldn’t glean much from the books themselves — they wouldn’t know what I thought of a book or which passages excited me or even if I’d ever gotten around to reading it. (Sure, that’s where my blog comes in, but still…)

I like the idea of leaving a trail behind me when I make my way through a book. It’s like dropping a few bread crumbs or pebbles so that I can follow them on my next journey, or leaving a message for the next person to read the book. I like the idea that my library could be more than just a collection of books on shelves, but that they could actually tell a story about who I am, in my own words.

So that brings me to my New Year’s Resolution for 2011. This year, I’m going to try to get over my reluctance to mark in my books. I’ll probably start with pencil, and maybe I’ll never progress to pens and highlighters. I certainly don’t see myself marking up a text like the image above. But at the very least, I’ll put a date in a book when I’ve read it, maybe the date and place I acquired it.

Of course, probably I’ll end up switching to ebooks this year and all of this will be moot.

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