Friday, January 14, 2011

I Bought the Book, It’s Mine Now, So…

by Ramona DeFelice Long


Once, when preparing for a party, my mother asked me to check the recipe in a cookbook. I was surprised to discover that she had altered the ingredients, and more so that she’d written the changes in the cookbook.

When I questioned her, she said, “I bought the book, it’s mine now, I can do whatever I want with it. And that recipe called for way too much sugar.”

She was right, both about the book and about the sugar. I sometimes changed recipes, but if I went to the trouble to make a note of it, I used a Post-it. I’d also written in my college texts, or highlighted parts I needed to study, but those were textbooks. They weren’t book books. When I started writing and invested in how-to and professional workbooks, I wrote in those IF space was provided. I filled in a blank if a blank space was provided. That was all okay. It wasn’t like I was scribbling in books willy-nilly.

When I teach workshops, I like to quote from published novels, and I like to read from the book rather than print passages. But I also skip around when quoting, and sometimes the Post-its slip or fall out of place. I quoted one book often. Finally I broke down, bought a paperback copy and highlighted the sentences I wanted to read. But it wasn’t like I was defacing it. It wasn’t just blithely noting my thoughts, feelings and reactions in a published book.

But then, a couple of months ago, I agreed to read and review Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. In this fascinating, and long, book, the Pulitzer Prize winning author spends 280 pages discussing these thirteen ways, and another 289 pages examining 100 books. No way could I rely on my memory for the high spots, so I decided it was okay to highlight and make notes in the margin. Still acceptable. Review notes did not cross the line into wild and crazy scribbling.

But then, I reached the line. While reading a novel, I was impressed by how the author handled a character’s crisis point. She’d built up to the moment, foreshadowing so subtlety, I’d hardly noticed. When I reached the illuminating passage, the whole book came together. She’d build the foundation with such cleverness, it made me want to study how she had managed it.

I went back and highlighted the hints and the clues she’d dropped. Then I highlighted the passage I liked. I made some notes in the margin.

This was a hardback fiction novel, and I was writing all over it. As I did, I thought of my mother’s comment: I bought the book, it’s mine now, I can do whatever I want with it.

But I felt like I was being naughty. Aren’t we taught as children never to write in books? Books are precious, and they are to be respected, not doodled on or marked over like grocery lists.

The day I wrote this post, I went to lunch with a writer friend. This person has great respect for books, property and authors. I asked her thoughts on this topic. Her response was that she did it all the time. If something in a book strikes her, she said, she’ll mark it, or write a question in the margin. She was not talking about writing a review, or doing a workshop; she meant noting questions or compliments that came to her strictly as a reader.

I admit I was as surprised as when I found my mother’s changes to the recipe in the cookbook. But now I’m thinking, why not? Is there something wrong with writing in a book after you buy it?

So, what about you? Under what circumstances, if any, would you write in a book? If you have published a book, would it bother you if a reader scribbled their thoughts in the margin?

18 comments:

Annette said...

I do tend to mark up my books on craft or the books I purchase in the name of research. But I've never written in a novel. Mainly because I don't always keep them. If I'm going to give them away or sell it to the used bookstore, I don't want to write in them.

However, I do use a lot of sticky flags if there are passages I want to refer back to. They mark the page, but can be removed without damaging the book.

Ellis Vidler said...

I never realized how well-trained I was. I only write in cookbooks, but I have sticky notes poking out of many books. What a hang-up! They're my books, ones I know I'll keep and refer to, but I feel horribly guilty actually writing in the book. This made me laugh. I think I'll get out my highlighter next time.

NancyM said...

Did you read the article in the NYTimes a week ago about the home decoratoar who tears books apart, sometimes puts old covers on blank books, etc, etc----JUST SO THEY LOOK PRETTY IN A ROOM? I was scandalized.

But I write in books all the time now. (Especially Jane Smiley! Did you read the whole thing? Or just bits & pieces??)

Joyce Tremel said...

I don't write in novels, but I do in my writing books. It never occurred to me to highlight anything in a novel.

I've noticed highlighted passages in books on my Kindle, though. I wondered why passages had dotted lines under them and found out when readers highlight certain passages, it shows up in your book. It will even tell you the number of people who have highlighted that particular passage. It's interesting to see.

I change recipes all the time. I don't think I have ANY that I haven't "doctored" up somehow. I make up a lot of my own, too.

Kerry said...

If I ever published a book, I'd be happy people bought it - I don't think I'd worry about what they did with it afterwords :)

Like others, I write in reference books, but not in novels. Which is silly, now that I think about it. Why *wouldn't* I want to highlight a beautiful piece of prose or an illuminating idea? D'uh.

My only caveat is that I hate using highlighting pens because the ink bleeds too much. Colored pencils are much better :)

Anonymous said...

I write in textbooks - especially since I started teaching.

I think if I cooked more, I would write in cook books.

I give most of my hardcover books to the library these days, so I try not to write in them!

xo Kathy Sweeney

Weldon Burge said...

I often write in books I've bought, fiction and nonfiction. For example, my hardback copy of Ed McBain's "Ghosts" is full of highlighted sections of dialogue and notes in the margins, from back when I was studying the use of dialogue in suspense fiction.

My rationale is this: Books are meant to be conversations between writers and their readers. As a writer, I certainly want interaction (if only in shared imagination) with my readers. If the reader jots down notes or highlights portions of what I've written, all the better! It means I've engaged them in some aspect.

Jennie Bentley said...

I write in books all the time. My name, in the front. ;-)

Actually, not too long ago, I went to a book club discussion for a group of - of all things - church ladies who were reading A Cutthroat Business. One of them asked me to mark and sign in the margin the steamiest passage in the book. (Not very steamy at all, since there's no sex in that book.) I have no idea why she wanted it, but the passage obviously appealed to her. For myself, I don't usually mark passages in novels, but it's more for anyone coming after me than because I'd have a problem doing it. Although I don't bend down the corners. Never ever.

Linda Leszczuk said...

I tend not to write in novels because many of my friends and I share books back and forth and I don't want my comments or questions distracting them from their enjoyment of the story.

I also read a lot of library books.

Ramona said...

I hope this doesn't start a "write in your books" revolution! JK.

The consensus seems to be that it's open season on cookbooks, workbooks and textbooks, but there's hesitation to write in novels. Hm.

Kathy makes a good point about not marking up a book that will be donated to a library. Ditto on people who share books with friends. And Jennie, totally agree, bending the corners is a huge no-no!

One of my poet friends wrote on Facebook, where I posted a link, that she marks passages to use for future inspiration. I like that.

The more I consider it, the more I think I've crossed the line into full fledged write-in-book-writer.

Ramona said...

NancyM, I think books as decor is a mindset I can't embrace. As to the 13 Ways, I admit to skipping through some of the 100 book reviews. It's a terrific resource book.

Weldon, I love your comment that books are conversations. Yes! I'm going to steal that from you, you know.

Kerry, I love highlighters. I have millions. I try to incorporate highlighters into my writing workshops, in part because its helps writers visualize, but also because I like the pretty bright colors. :-)

And Linda, I'd never write in a library book. Or park my wad of gum between the pages, a discovery I would love to erase from my memory.

hollygee said...

I can't stand to start reading a library book and finding that some I-can-do-it-better has copy-edited the book. Grrrrr.
It's so distracting even if their edits might be correct.

Patg said...

I agree with Annette, I never write in novels because I rarely keep them. And I believe that anyone who does may be a real collector, never consider getting rid of one of "their" books. I live in the land of Powell's Books, and they buyers look through them carefully for marks. But 'how to' books are a completely different story. I even prefer them used because then I get the insight of the previous reader.
Recipes???? I've never met one I didn't want to change in some way to suit my tastes. Only time I follow one as is when I'm cooking a new one for a crowd. And even then, second time around, I'm changing it.
Patg

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I don't write in novels.

I'm grateful for every sale I get and I don't care what you do with one of my books as long as you read it.

Rochelle Staab said...

When I find a book and an author I adore, I highlight my favorite phrases or descriptions or conversations. Novels, self-help, memoir, cookbook, all of them. I've been highlighting and underlining for years - but the highlighted books are never loaned out or taken to the library. They're treasured keepers.

Therefore, if a reader wants to dog ear, highlight, or make notes in my novel - have at it. If the story made someone think, hurray!

But physically tearing the books apart to look pretty in a room? Never. Nope. Uh-uh.

Ramona said...

Holly, I can't imagine marking up a book that doesn't belong to me, particularly a library book. That's just obnoxious.

Wil, I'm sure your sentiment is shared by all authors.

I'm a little surprised by the people who regularly write in their books. I had no idea how the responses would go. Who knew?

Kaye George said...

I've always written in my books. I even dog-ear the pages I've written on or where I've underlined something. When I'm reviewing, it's 10 times worse! You really can't read a book I'm reviewing after I'm done with it. I open them all up the way, too. It sickens my daughter.

But I have never written on a piece of music in anything but very erasable pencil. I could never bring myself to do that.

MacDougal Street Baby said...

It's funny and you're right. We are taught when we are young to be respectful of books, not to fold down the corners of pages but to use bookmarks instead. This post makes me want to uncap my pen the next time I open my current read. Unfortunately, I get the majority of my books from the library nowadays. I'm sure you'll agree, to deface a borrowed book is just plain wrong.