by Steve Leveen
Les Standiford, teacher, author and booklover, wouldn’t dream
of writing in the hardcover books in his library. "I won’t underline or even dog-ear pages. The books have become important to me as
Tom Morris, philosopher, author and booklover, wouldn’t dream
of not writing in them. "I underline and write and dog-ear
like crazy. A book should never be just read; it should be used."
Do you write in the hardcover books you own? Few questions
polarize serious readers as much as this one.
Les Standiford belongs to the group I call Preservationists.
For them, the mere expression "writing in books" is akin to running
fingernails down a chalkboard. Books are cherished objects, they
say. Even if you intend to keep the book for your lifetime,
eventually it will be passed on to others, so you shouldn’t
contaminate it with your thoughts of the moment.
Preservationists are also quick to point out that besides
being an affront to future readers, any writing in a book lowers its
Tom Morris belongs to the group I call Footprint Leavers. For
them, books are like food to be heartily enjoyed, and if need be,
consumed in the interest of a healthy diet. Writing in the margins
and underlining are healthy interactions and make the book more
valuable to them, which is their concern. There are plenty of
unmarked books to go to posterity, they say; this one book will give
its all to them.
Preservationists scoff at this. They may well take notes from
a book, which they claim is more meaningful than merely underlining
anyway. "Underlining is a fool’s way of absorbing knowledge," says
one accomplished Preservationist. Several others say that
underlining can actually become a disservice to the underliner when,
years later, he returns to the book and finds it difficult to read
passages not underlined, or is forced to see the book the same way
she did years ago, instead of with more mature eyes.
The Footprint Leavers will counter that if they wish to read
a pristine copy, they can almost always buy another copy or get one
from the library. And they like seeing how they previously viewed
the book. It gives them insights into their viewpoints at an earlier
age, and all-important self knowledge.
Alexandra Stoddard, the author of some 22 books on design and
good living, is a devoted Footprint Leaver. She showed me her
much-loved copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gifts From the Sea.
It was laden with colorful underlines, highlights and various
triangles and rectangles in the margin. Alexandra could point to her
original marks, when she first read the book as a girl, and then
subsequent readings as the years went by and she matured. The book
had transformed into a diary of sorts, imbued with her own visible
testimony to the meanings she extracted over the years. "Books are
food for me. I put them in my mouth," she beams.
Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and
interviewer, reportedly writes all over the books written by the
authors he interviews, filling the margins with possible questions.
Will Provine, a historian of science and
collector of rare books, has examined the libraries of many
scientists, including Nobel Prize winners. He says that most
scientists didn’t write in their books, yet Charles Darwin almost
always did so. "A book is generally worth more if written in by an
important person," Will says. Darwin’s comments are considered of
enormous historical significance.
Samuel Johnson was an even earlier
luminary who wrote in books (often to the annoyance of the friends
he borrowed them from), as he selected words for his famous
dictionary of 1755.
Tom Morris, who has written a score of scholarly and popular
books on philosophy (including Philosophy for Dummies),
yearns for his books to be abused. "When I see one of my books in
someone’s home, I want to open the dog-eared pages and see comments
on nearly every page, and maybe some suntan oil and jelly smears as
well. I want to know it was used!"
For all these accomplished Footprint Leavers, my inquiries
suggest there are far more Preservationists. Perhaps the world is
better for this, since future readers will have more pristine books
to inherit. Although even dedicated Footprint Leavers will not ruin
an obviously valuable book. If it’s a costly first edition, they
will probably not read it at allthus ensuring they won’t be
tempted. It’s the ordinary hardcovers they write in with abandon.
It’s live for today and read as if no librarian were
In case you’re wondering, I leave
footprints. How about you?