Writing in the Margins: Books Before and After I Read Them

Elizabeth Bastos

Staff Writer

Elizabeth Bastos has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and writes at her blog 19th-Century Lady Naturalist. Follow her on Twitter: @elizabethbastos

Though I would like you to lend me a book I am not the kind of person you should lend a book to; I am a spine breaker, a mangler, I can’t help myself, I need to highlight words that I like, and fresh sentence structures. I scribble in the margins things like “Yes!” or little stars.

I recently got a cache of loaner children’s books from a friend and they still all had their dust jackets. Mind you, her children are in their late teens, these were books that were new in the early 90s and they still looked new. The gloss was on the illustrations. There was no Silly Putty holding together forever pages 5, 6 and 7. Nobody had crayoned hair on Oliver Tolliver, the hero dog of the charming tale of friendship and sharing One Of Each.

How is it that me and mine seem to spell tomato juice on the title page of all our books and chew dust jackets with our morning toast and tea, while others keep their margins free of scribblings for years?

I held the loaner books up high, as I read them to my kids, 5 and 7, out of reach, as if they were reliquaries. Don’t touch them I said don’t breathe on them I said put that crayon down. But I didn’t even trust myself with them; I could feel that age old urge to write “nice rhyme” somewhere and “adorable illustrations” like a wolf peeing the perimeter of its territory.

Maybe that’s what it is, a possessiveness. Words are so fleeting – the best conversation or most heated argument you ever had is already just a memory – but a book? It’s like a locket or a lock box. I reread what I’ve chicken-scratched into in the margins of my favorite books and it’s a remembrance of things past.