You can't stop me from writing in my books

i'm bad.

I know better than to read the way that I do.

For a little while, I had a job at a rare books library. I learned to appreciate reverence. I learned that dust is the enemy of every old piece of paper and that white gloves will do more harm then clean bare hands. I learned that if you cradle Charlotte Bronte’s juvenilia in your hand it barely weighs anything at all. I learned that pristine copies are ideal unless you are reading diaries and then the messier they are the better. I learned about the value of a first edition, and the rarity of a well-kept best seller.

In that job, I was surrounded by people who loved books, who loved book culture, who would have loved bookstagram (or hated it) had it existed. They were people who kept inserts in their backpacks to keep a good hardback pristine. Okay so only one person I knew there did that. But generally, we all believed that books were kind of sacred, that they meant something, that their physical form was a blessing.

But I am, and have always been, very very hard on books.

Borrow a book from me, and you will find it used. I break the backs of paperbacks as quickly as I can in several places. I never found the patience to stretch them carefully. I throw books into my bags with open pens so that they end up with ink blotches on the page ends. I set cold glasses of iced tea and hot mugs of coffee on their covers. I spill wine on their pages.

But the worst thing I do is that I write in my books.

For a while, I felt really embarrassed about this. It felt like either something that was disrespectful of the books I loved, or something immature. There is definitely a direct recall between writing in a book and the forced annotations middle school English teachers make their students do. But I just don’t know how to read without a pen in my hand. I want to take notes on a paper; I want to copy down a great sentence; I want to live with the book.

A great sentence must be underlined. An incredible paragraph will get a line by its side. I will circle a word I don’t know. I will put an exclamation mark by the side of a passage I can’t get enough of. I will draw a question mark in the margin of something I’m skeptical of. On occasion, I will even write a sentence or two. I do not really and have not ever really reviewed books, though I imagine this would be a good thing to do if I did.

I love that when I hand a book to a friend to borrow, they will read what I have read in addition to the book itself. I love that writing in books makes them a kind of living document that catalogs not only the story itself but the way that the people who have read them read.

This is also probably just a manifestation of how happy I am to own books. As a kid, I mostly read books from the library. You cannot, should not, must not, write in a library book. On occasion, I would get to buy a book from the Barnes and Noble and I would dog-ear its pages and mark up its paragraphs. My excitement did not manifest as reverence, but as a thick black underline that makes it hard to read the line beneath the important one. Now, my favorite books are riddled with underlined passages.

The markings are especially interesting when I re-read. This weekend, I was feeling a little stuck emotionally/creatively/ mentally and I decided to copy down a passage from a book I love, and found an underlined section only to realize that what I really loved now was the paragraph that lead into it. That was the part I loved now: this other unmarked section, just waiting for me.

I underlined the new beloved paragraph too leaving the whole page underlined, messy, and loved.

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painting is Florent Joseph Marie Willem’s "The Important Response” (1878)