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?