Presumably, sometime in the near future — at Christmas, or on a birthday or some other occasion — you will be given a book. Will you write in it? Just your name, perhaps, on the flyleaf? Or marginal notes as you read? Or will you keep it pristine?
A few months ago I wrote about how, as a child, I wrote in my books but then stopped — and I don’t know why I stopped. I wondered if I was alone in this.
Your responses poured in — many more than I have room for here. They were delightful — thoughtful, funny and surprising. Many came with attached photos. And passion! Oh, some of you are appalled at the idea of writing in books. But some of you relish it.
And many of you have changed your views over time.
Jon Lovold of White Bear Lake used to write in books, “Mostly just my name, with a possible added, ‘please return it to me!’ But over the years I have become very caring about my books. I do not write in them any longer, not even my name.”
Sylvia Bertagnoli of Inver Grove Heights, on the other hand, writes in books so frequently that she rubber-bands a yellow highlighter around whatever she is reading.
“Do they give trophies for the most marked-up books?” she writes. “If they do, I think I would win! On the first page I always write ‘To Sylvia from Sylvia.’ Then I add the date I started reading the book.”
She also notes where she read the book, and when she finished it.
The highlighter allows her to “underline thoughts I enjoyed, words and places to look up, and sentences that speak to me and deserve to be reread.” And the bright yellow stands out. “This gives me the ability to walk by my bookcases, pick up a title and instantly reread the best part of the book.”
Anita White also writes in books, inspired by her parents.
“My father, James C. White, read thousands of books and each one bore the relationship he had to the book,” she said. “He wrote in them. Underlined avidly, stuffed them with mostly related papers until they were twice as thick as when they started out. One knew he had read a book.
“My mother, Emily, also underlined in her books and created indexes much like my father did. They are both gone now, but I feel their presence keenly when I open one of their books and see what their thoughts and feelings were.”
Judi Nelson of St. Anthony cannot bring herself to write in books, perhaps because as a child she once had to pay a 25-cent fine for marking up a schoolbook. “But my sister used to white-out ‘naughty’ words in her books,” Nelson said. “She accidentally did that in a library book. Wonder if anyone noticed?”
When RuthAnn Noren of Albert Lea, Minn., was a child in the 1940s and ’50s, books were too precious to mar.
“However, I now put notes in my Bible as it helps me interpret the verses, especially in the Old Testament,” she wrote. “I feel my Bible should be used, not be an accessory on a table.”
Dan Erlandson of Minneapolis and his wife have opposite views on the subject. He writes in his books “because it helps me enjoy the book both in the moment and looking back at it later,” he wrote. “My wife, on the other hand, likes to keep books in great shape. We have kidded each other over the years about this.”
But when he bought a plastic-wrapped first edition of a book, he found himself stymied. “I couldn’t mess it up and wreck its new condition. Normally I would not think twice about marking up a book, but for some reason the plastic had power.” So Erlandson bought two more copies of the book — one to give away, and one to mark up. The original purchase remains unmarred, still wrapped in plastic.
Lois Rafferty of Minneapolis considers writing in books as a way of talking to the author.
“I still underline, add comments in the margins, and occasionally, I even correct grammar (it’s the teacher in me) in my books,” she said. Recently, “I pulled out some of the zillions of books on our shelves and, yes, there was my feedback to the authors. I’m glad I messed up my books with my responses and reactions. Finding them again evoked the same emotions, even, in some cases, years later.”
Geri Portnoy of Del Mar, Calif., doesn’t just underline in her books — she stars important passages, and scrawls a circled “Q” to designate a quote she might want to refer to again. “I also make a list in the front and back pages where I list important page numbers and snippets of revelatory information. Marking up my book was my way of loving the book, conversing with the author and leaving my mark. As if to say, ‘I was here’ deeply, intimately, fully engaged in the writing of another person.”
Those kinds of notes are enthralling to Luann Rice of Baxter, Minn. “I love when people write in their books,” she said. “I try to visualize the person who took their time to personalize the text.”
Caz Casber of Edwards, Colo., boldly suggests that everyone should write in their books. “I think it’s sacrilege not to write in your books,” he wrote, and then went on to say:
“Write in them with colored flair pens, different colors for different moods or feelings or questions. Highlight in them with color, it shows your passion. Jot down brief questions, comments, your feelings about the content, words that are new, all of those wonderful thoughts and ideas that arise from a good read; write them in your book. Don’t be shy; scribble down names, phone numbers or e-mail addresses, if you’re taking calls while reading. Doodle, draw, squiggle, get creative; that’s what words do to us.
“Pristine books are of no use. Yes, a resonating yes; write in your books. Share with your children, your friends, and the world, your thoughts and ideas about what’s on those pages; and show them your books are beloved.”
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.