Wednesday, March 5, 2014


You can look through the pages of any of my favorite books. No matter how much I love a book -- no matter how dog-eared the pages are, how creased the spine is, how ripply the pages are from me sobbing over some character's totally unfair death -- you won't find writing in the margins.

One of my friends compulsively writes reactions in the books he reads. Another underlines a couple sentences per page, but without notes. Another friend thinks it's a less active sort of reading, "lazy reading," not to write anything in the margins. On the other hand, one of my friends thinks that writing in a book is a special type of sacrilege that reserves a spot in some minor circle of hell for the offender, so, you know, there's that.

Personally, I find it kind of hard to have any opinion on other people's reading habits. If we're talking a collector's item or antique, that's one thing, but I feel like the idea of 'defacing' a book places so much unnecessary emphasis on the material itself, rather than the experience of reading it. Personally, taking time to jot notes jolts me right out of the narrative, which is why those high school projects requiring annotations felt like me trying to extract my fingernails. But hey, if someone else feels a deeper connection to that story by writing thoughts or underlining, who am I to claim that their experience is invalid?

I feel like this is the same sort of issue that some people have with making art out of books - for instance, sculptures! I've seen book sculptures like that one floating around the internet with incredibly angry comments attached. "How could anyone do that to perfectly good books?" says the rage-filled internet browser. "That makes me sick!" Which, er, I don't know if they're actually looking at the sculpture, but that's a beautiful piece of art right there, worthwhile in its own right as I'm sure the books were. The actual physical form of a book is important, sure -- especially with all the symbolism surrounding the banning, burning, or destroying of books -- but is it the most important thing? If the books weren't going to be used, or if there are other copies in the world that can still perpetuate the idea, then why not sculpt something out of these books?

(I personally made a sculpture out of pages I took from Crime and Punishment and Moby Dick, so admittedly, I'm a little biased here. And let's be honest, it was more than a little fun to tear out that Whiteness of the Whale chapter, good Lord. But whatever, my gripes with Melville are beside the point.)

Sometimes, as a fellow non-note-taker, I want to have a good long debate with my friend who wants to condemn all the Book Graffiti-ers to Inferno-type justice. After all, in one of my favorite books, Fahrenheit 451, a band of book-loving exiles [spoiler!] memorizes books in order to preserve them for the future. The idea, not the form, is what's important; the idea is what's saved. There's also the fact that in this increasingly digital publishing climate, eBooks -- books made entirely out of computer code, oh gosh -- are comprising a growing proportion of what modern readers buy. Does that make these books less important, because they're not printed and glued together and kept on a shelf in pristine condition?

I would argue not at all. A book is a deeply personal experience, and to be honest, assuming someone is disrespecting books because they write in the margins is borderline hilarious to me. It's the story we crave, and hell, if someone needs to lick every page of a book in order to appreciate that story to its fullest extent, then I say lick away. I'll argue that books are important not because of packaging, but because of the meanings we attach to them. I'll argue that complaining about in-page writing is the silliest sort of traditionalism. At least a page-licking, margin-writing reader is a reader at all.

Meanwhile, I fully intend to memorize Fahrenheit 451, because dude, how badass would that be.

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in Ohio. She is represented by Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Sporadically and with occasional weirdness, she blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.


Jane Jazz said...

Such an interesting post, thanks! I have mixed feelings about book sculpture: books are meant to be read not upcycled, but then beautiful sculptures make people look and think... about books. As you say, there are many more copies of the book out there, and I don't suppose anyone would sculpt a 1st edition!
As to defiling books with notes, I have to (guiltily) admit to using a highlighter pen on some of mine; but only ever on non-fiction ;-)

Susan Chambers said...

It's a different world we're living in -- I appreciate the (seemingly) visceral response people have to "defaced" books. I really appreciate the respect they have for the books. But these books are not at risk of not existing. Sculpting a book, upcycling books is not removing the words and ideas from the world. We aren't as limited as we used to be, we can reorder, reprint, and find books online that can't be ruined.

The difference with burning books is that the act is symbolic of destroying the words and ideas. But the destruction itself is impotent against the consumption and demand that drives book production.

In college, we poor-me was buying reused copies of all my books, I would flip through and look for the most marked up copies to buy. I loved reading people's notes and reactions and trying to figure out what they were thinking (and deciding whether or not I agreed with them).