Sunday Salon: Book Notes


When I was just a wee lass, my paternal grandmother gave me her copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I read it happily, until I got to the last few chapters. My grandmother had underlined, in pen, several passages of the novel. I was shocked that somebody would desecrate a book like that! It had been made very clear to me by my mother that writing in books was bad, ever since I scribbled in and tore up in my brother’s Asterix comic books. (There are many words to describe myself as a child–let’s just go with completely bonkers for now.)

I simply cannot bring myself to write in a novel. While other students wrote all over their copy of My Antonia for AP English, I very neatly used small Post-Its. My Antonia swelled to nearly twice its size. My mother encouraged me to circle words in books I didn’t know, a suggestion that chilled me to the bone. Now that I’m in college, I will write in a nonfiction book, delicately underlining and bracketing in pencil, but the use of pen on a book makes me frown. While I was reading my used copy of Life: The Movie, a mention of Cary Grant was decorated in pen with a heart. I scowled and moved on.

I’m not sure why I feel this way. I think it has something to do with my love of physical books and the sanctity of the story. I don’t mind reading used books–in fact, I adore it. As I’ve mentioned, I used to volunteer in a thrift store sorting books, a great deal of which came home with me. (I once came across a book with an inscription to an Aunt Eleanor: “You’re love of reading has inspired my own!”, it read. There’s a reason it was given to us.) But writing and underlining in the text itself of novels can be distracting to me. It pulls me out of the experience of reading. This is fine in a nonfiction work, but it’s hard to keep up suspension of disbelief and lose myself in a novel when I’m wondering why a previous reader underlined certain passages and phrases. It’s a little too much audience involvement for me.

That said, I do need to take notes about books–for class and for my reviews. I use eight by five notecards, which are roughly the same size as a regular hardback. Using a pencil, for fear of pen getting on a library book (as I am a college student and can only afford to buy so many books at a time), I write rough notes on the lined side. Words I don’t know are written on the back, along with page numbers. I do this with books I own, as well. I’m starting to think about putting little nameplates on books from my personal library, but I think that will be as far as I go for writing in my own books.

In other news, I am woefully behind on my NaNo–I need to write 25,000 words by this evening, which means 7,000 today. I need to finish The Nine, as the assignment on it is due tomorrow. After that, I think I’ll start on The Good Thief, followed by The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and then Graceling, which I’m greatly looking forward to.

How do you take notes, or what do you think of writing in books?

10 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Book Notes

  1. I am like you.. I would NOW never want to write in a book. I do remember highlighting in my textbooks though. I recently dug out some of my ‘better’ books that I had as a child. One of the Dicken’s had (in my brother’s handwriting, the sneak) a math addition equation written on the inside cover. Grr. It is in pencil though. Then I found another Poetry Collection book that had my name neatly signed (by me) and the date of 1985. That I didn’t mind so much because I have no intention of giving the book away. Out of all the books in my house, that is all the writing that I know of. And yet, I wish that my late father would have written something on the inside covers when he bought a special book for me. I think that would be my exception to the rule, to turn it into a keepsake or momento.
    Good luck on the NaNo writing! I think when my youngest can survive on his own without tearing the house apart every 15 minutes I will try the writing endeavor. But as I write this, he is standing on the coffee table making animal noises. Not the best writing environment.

    • I don’t mind if it’s the blank page prior to the title page- if it’s a gift, I like to put a little inscription on there for the recipient. It’s good in my book, as it’s not interfering with the actual text.

      And thank you! Homework, homework, homework, then see if I can’t get up to speed. Yes, it’s fun, but it really makes you see how you spend your time.

  2. I used to be very anti-writing in books, and I suppose that in fiction books I still am. The turning point for me I think was when I was in college (not all that long ago) and I highlighted and wrote more out of necessity than anything else. I was often on the go and needed to bring as little with me as possible so extra notebooks and post its that I would lose were out of the question. Reading on public transit is also much harder if you have extra items. So I suppose my writing in books was an adaptation I had to make in order to make sure things got done appropriately.

    Now, my fiction books hardly get written in, unless something really speaks to me then I might lightly underline or bracket if I own it. The one fiction book I have that is immensly written/underlined in is Infinite Jest, but there was no way I could have read that without going crazy if I hadn’t written in it. Again, I read a lot on public transit, so no extra notebooks for me 🙂

  3. I don’t write in books now but when I was in college I did, especially graduate school. I ended up keeping several of the books instead of selling them back because I wrote so many notes in the margins that they weren’t really readable after I was done with them. Now, when I’m feeling the need for notes, I use note cards. They’re just so handy.

  4. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

    Funny you bring this up today; I was JUST thinking this as I was finishing up WOLF HALL earlier this week. My friend Leslie told me how when she read WOLF HALL for review, she took tons of notes in the margins of her copy. As I was reading my copy, I kept thinking, “oh my goodness, I couldn’t imagine writing in this book!” My notes are all on post-its! I never could bring myself to write in any kind of book: novel, nonfiction or otherwise.

  5. I do write a lot in textbooks. Makes studying easier later.

    I don’t tend to write in novels, but not out of conviction. I give a lot away on Paperback Swap, and they don’t allow writing. In books I intend to keep, I might do a little light underlining or marginal markings, but I keep it to a minimum. Lots of notes would be distracting on a second read.

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