booksI have heard it said by many professors and classmates that it’s helpful to write in books. At least in the realm of college education, this is considered a normal thing to do, and it seems to me that it’s especially standard practice for English majors. Maybe that’s because English majors are not only trying to commit facts and terminology to memory, but they are also making observations about how ideas are expressed. Word choice, reoccurring themes and motifs, and organization of the material are things that are worthwhile to note, both in literature and in literary criticism. I’m not saying that other fields don’t pay attention to these things, but they certainly don’t focus on them as intensely as literary studies do. There’s a wide variety of things to be noticed and remembered, and it’s convenient to do so by taking a highlighter pen to the relevant passage or by writing specific notes directly into the book.

I myself don’t write in textbooks, though. Throughout four years of college, the closest I got to taking notes a book was taking notes on a sheet of paper that I then folded up and used as a bookmark. There were two classes I took that had workbooks that I did write in, but I would argue that workbooks are a very different matter. They have blank spaces where you are specifically told to write, and you’re supposed to answer a specific question in that space. It’s the things you put in the workbook, not the printed text already in the workbook, that’s important. That just isn’t the same as writing in a book that is complete and functions without any directly tangible interaction from the reader.

That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with writing in books, and I wouldn’t argue that there’s any moral reason not to do so. In fact, students are and should be free to take notes in whatever reasonable way they find helpful. (I specify that it should be reasonable because I can think of a few note-taking methods that I’m not sure should be condoned, such as carving notes into walls or writing them on the faces of sleeping roommates. But as far as I know, neither one of these techniques is common practice.) It is just a personal preference of mine to avoid writing in books. Certainly, anyone should be allowed to write in a book that is their own property, if they so desire.

bookWith that being said, there are three reasons I can think of off the top of my head that I choose not to write in books. The first is that it’s too permanent. If I type something on my computer, I can delete or edit it, whether it’s ten seconds or ten years later. If I write something down on a separate sheet of paper, I can throw it away later or scribble over it or cross out words. I don’t necessarily want to keep every note I took for every paper I wrote because they may not have any significance outside of that assignment. Those ideas have been thought and I don’t necessarily need to have them written out anymore. But if they’re written in a book that I still have and will very likely read again, I’m stuck with them. (Yes, I am such a nerd that I have been known to keep and reread textbooks.) Those notes probably aren’t actually hurting anything, but they clutter up my book, and their lack of insightfulness will annoy me in the future if I wasn’t happy with that paper in the end.

A second reason is that I hate it when my notes are accessible to other people. If they’re written in a book, there’s always a chance that someone else will want to borrow it and will see those notes, and that would be awkward. It seems to me that notes are private and personal things. They don’t reveal secrets, but you created them yourself for yourself, and so they reflect the way you think. Whether you took those notes from class or from a book, you wrote them quickly with the intention of doing something with them later. They are not a finished product that is meant for the eyes of other people who might not be able to understand your note-taking shorthand or the informal rules that govern the way the notes are arranged. (Sometimes, you have to write as small as you can to squeeze something into a predetermined unit of space, and sometimes you just let it overflow to wherever there’s room for it.)

Finally, the third reason that I don’t like to write in books is that I have a sense of respect for books that I feel is violated by adding things to them. Not all books contain great insight and wisdom, but all books are the product of the time, effort, and applied skill of people who felt that the book had some value, and I think that means that every book is valuable in some way. Admittedly, this doesn’t keep me from occasionally storing my books in stacks on the floor. (It’s a perfectly valid storage system in theory, even if it is less traditional and less aesthetically pleasing than the use of bookshelves.) But it does keep me from adding my own words to the pages of a volume that is complete without them. It seems to me that writing notes in a book is like thinking about the Star Wars prequels while watching the original trilogy. Just because they’re about the same things doesn’t mean that they’re of the same quality, and it ought to be remembered that the original work is what ought to be getting the attention.

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