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writing in books

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 artifacts."

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 value dramatically.

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 all—thus 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 watching.

In case you’re wondering, I leave footprints. How about you?