Confession time: I deface books

C.mon, who can resist adding a moustache and specs? (From - Wreck My Journal)It’s a cardinal sin to scribble in a book – for some people. I used to feel this way, but now I see them (the ones I own) as more interactive templates. I’m allowed to take notes, highlight, dog ear the pages if I find something wonderful.

Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Jane Austen did it too. They annotated, or engaged in marginalia. Often gossip it seems in the case of Twain. But also comment on the text.

I’d want to read that marginalia. But it won’t exist in future once/if e-books kill off paper copies.

You see? You see! Bet you didn’t think of that in your headlong rush to the future all you developers. (Unless you in fact have already developed features to let us carry on with our marginal doodlings after all. In which case, drat, you’ve outsmarted me again.)

The defaced page, by the way, is from Lari Fari‘s charming and imaginative Wreck My Journal idea.

Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times article by Dirk Johnson on the romance of marginalia:

Some lovers of literature even conjure dreamy notions about those who have left marginalia for them to find. In his poem “Marginalia,” Billy Collins, the former American poet laureate, wrote about how a previous reader had stirred the passions of a boy just beginning high school and reading “The Catcher in the Rye.”

As the poem describes it, he noticed “a few greasy smears in the margin” and a message that was written “in soft pencil — by a beautiful girl, I could tell.” It read, “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

The full piece is here.

Nelson Mandela laughs in the face of your book defacement disapproval.

Here are some more highlights:

When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa in 1977, a copy of Shakespeare was circulated among the inmates. Mandela wrote his name next to the passage from “Julius Caesar” that reads, “Cowards die many times before their deaths.”

Studs Terkel, the oral historian, was known to admonish friends who would read his books but leave them free of markings. He told them that reading a book should not be a passive exercise, but rather a raucous conversation.

Do you deface books too? Or should that be – do you also enrich and enhance the original text too? If Nelson Mandela does it, who can condemn it? (Mother Teresa did it too. Probably. Maybe. But she was too modest to talk about it.)

Or is it the bookish equivalent of a slightly nutty angry man shouting at his TV or radio? (I had one living next door to me in college.)

(Annette and Reading Through The Night are talking about it too.)

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Confession time: I deface books

  1. Is it defacing if it’s a book you own? I don’t think so. Haven’t defaced a book since my uni days but there are a few copies of Thucydides and Plutarch with my drool and highlighter on them in the Macquarie library. I used to fall asleep on them regularly in my little cubicle.

  2. I admire your ability to write freely in your books. I saw a “Wreck This Journal” book in Barnes & Noble and thought about picking it up as a primer to help me get over my marginalia block. But, of course, I didn’t. My birthday’s coming up, so maybe I should put it on my Amazon Wish List. =)

  3. You might like this – http://www.talesofthings.com/

    Back stories and “marginalia” for any object.

  4. Chenab Mangat

    I’ve tried, i really have, but just can’t make myself do it – even writing my name in them seems an act too far.

    saying that…a folded-back book marked with tea-mug, breakfast crumb, apple pips…well. that’s a booked that’s lived, no?

  5. I make notations, underlines in books when I have to review them. My pet peeve is a grrrr at people who dog ear pages to keep track of the page last read.

    I make my own page markers with invitations chopped up with a bit of raffia tied to a punched hole…and it inevitably stays in the book.

  6. Ain’t defacin’ if you own the book. If it’s not yours, well now…

    As far as e-readers completely replacing books-in-the-hand … no way.

  7. I write in books all the time. It’s notes or thoughts that I have while reading, but only in books I own. That’s why I have such difficulty reading e-books; I want to make notes!

  8. Depends on the quality of the defacement. Vigorous underlining of some opinion with “This is contradicted by Schopenhauer’s own arguments!”, perhaps with a sad face is fine. A big, spunking cock and balls with “Gary Lloyd (Form IIIa) is a bumboy” less so.

  9. Nothing wrong with writing notes in your own. Anyway it adds character to the book and in the future could provide someone else with some helpful and interesting information and possibly history. That said, if it was a really fancy book of the sleek and shiney variety, don’t think I could bring myself to as you put it, deface it.

  10. Barbara Rodgers

    Yes, I have defaced almost every book I’ve ever read! Now there is a feature on my Kindle for highlighting texts and making notes, but I haven’t figured out how to use it yet. For now I’m scribbling on Sticky-Notes (the paper ones). When someone borrows a book from me I tell them to feel free to add to the marginalia. Emily Dickinson and her siblings did the same with the books they shared…

  11. I have never seen this as defacing books except what high school kids do to text books which give them a use expectancy of only tow years at $90 a pop and no funds for replacement. For my own reading I own all the books I read and I look at the margin notes as interacting with the author and book’s contents. If it is fiction I love creative metaphors and similes so I underline these and keep a 3×5 card file rewriting them. I think today’s literature can be interpreted as defacing the readers because they contain so much filth and such.

  12. I’ve never defaced a book (yet – it’s on my to-do list) but I did hide little handwritten notes in a previous flat just before I moved out. Nothing weird, just odd memories I thought the new owner would find interesting, and hints about problems he or she might encounter. I’d love to know what they made of them (assuming they found them).

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