Our Reading Lives

The Naughty Magic of Writing in Books

Our Reading Lives features stories about how books and reading have shaped who we are and how we live. It is open not only to regular Book Riot contributors, but to guest posters from the publishing industry, authors, and….you. If you are interested in telling us about a book that has been influential in your life, please contact us: community (at) bookriot (dot) com.

This is a guest post from Book Riot reader Michael Walter.  He is a writer and lit student living in Toronto. He occasionally blogs about love poems.

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When I was a kid, the rules were simple: don’t write in books. Don’t spill things on them. Don’t break the spines. Don’t dare dream of folding the page corners to mark your place.

I was a little library rat back then, toting huge stacks of paperbacks to and from my TV-and-internet-bereft home. You gotta play nice and share, keep the books perfect for the other kids.

In middle school there was a little more leeway. The books were mine (mine!) and a teacher might gently permit a faint underscoring in soft pencil to adorn a particularly fine passage or plot point. But the eraser stood ready, in thought if not in reality, poised to restore the page back to its pristine blankness, ready for some half-imagined time when I’d be “done” with the book and could sell it to next year’s kids.

But I would never be “done” with the book. I still have them, stacks of them, in my house, in my ex’s house, in my parent’s house.

When I reached university, I found myself without a carefully reserved soft pencil with alarming frequency.

One day in a tutorial, I cracked. I took my leaky black ballpoint and I tagged that sucker up (MY book). I was surprised by how right it felt, tracing thick black lines up and down passages, scoring wildly under favorite words, writing little messages to myself in the margin. Hey, they’re paperbacks, right? It’s not like I’m going to keep them forever.

That’s what made it OK. Paperbacks. Transitory. Somewhere at the back of my mind, the ideal of the pristine white page remained–it’s fine to mess up this copy, because I can always get another copy.

But the real magic of writing in books is that gradually your flawed copy becomes perfect. My ideal copy of Pale Fire (MY book!) is so dense with annotations it would probably be useless (or at least intolerably annoying) to anyone else. The pages buckle under heavy pen marks and give the book a reassuring thickness. Give it enough time, and you stop seeing the scribbling as words and just navigate by the shape of it, peaking and zagging like the readout on a seismograph.

Every book’s chart carries a different pattern. Nabokov volumes are all sharp edges and dense little explanations of mechanical puzzles. Joyce is torrid, swirling lines like currents in an undertow. A novel like Toomer’s Cane is all gentle curves and long, undulating connections.

Writing in books is insidious. It begins as a racy thrill, something audacious. I know that just the thought of casually defacing a book will horrify or disgust many bibliophiles. Breaking the taboo feels indulgent, dirty, exciting. But it quickly becomes second nature. Reading seems less of a passive act. Books seem less like hallowed objects.

Which is perhaps what I like most about writing in books. Before, I would catch myself idolizing books, elevating them to impossible heights. “I should read more,” I’d think to myself, without reference to anything in particular. I didn’t store books; I displayed them. I coated my walls with them.

Writing in books forces me to consume them. It’s easier to be honest with myself when the books I’ve read have scribbled pages, tattered covers and cracked spines, and the books I haven’t look like the same pristine ideal I was taught to preserve as a child. A bookshop-fresh volume seems to me like a brand-new catcher’s mitt: full of promise, but impersonal, unfulfilled.

There’s nothing quite like writing in books. It’s hard to doodle on a reel of film or an LP. You can scribble on a painting, but not without changing the heart of the thing. But a book filled with notes and messages and lines is still a book. The text is still itself, intact, uncorrupted. But yours, somehow.