Conversing with books

September 23, 2018

Should a book be left unmarked in its original form or should it merely act as a vessel to hold the readers’ ideas? Throwing open the marginalia debate…

Conversing with books

There are predominantly two kinds of readers one comes across: those who write in the margins of a book, and those who cannot bear the thought of doing so. Few things have divided readers as much as this, since the very dawn of the reading age.

I, for one, readily write in the margins of my books. Apart from a few sacred ones, for example hard back novels, rare editions or books I borrow from friends, everything else is fair game. To me, reading is an active exercise, not a passive one, especially in the case of non-fiction. So while I’m reading, I am essentially having a conversation with my book.

Marginalia -- the habit of writing/ taking notes in the margins of printed books -- has time and again been heavily debated and scrutinised; legendary writers like William Blake, Jane Austen, David Foster Wallace, S.T. Coleridge, Mark Twain, among many others, have helped by turning it into a literary art form.

Books serve as fuel to ignite a reader’s imagination and bring out complex emotions in him/her that might be unreachable otherwise. But should a physical book be left unmarked in its original form or should it merely act as a vessel to hold the readers’ ideas?

Readers’ responses to the above question are almost as diverse as the habit of reading itself; varying from a blatant ‘never!’ to romanticising writing in margins and that too ‘in ink’. Some would mention scribbling only ‘neatly in pencil’ -- whereas others would confess about going all in with highlighters, coloured pens and the like.

Ghausia Rashid Salam, feminist writer who works at an NGO in Karachi, wouldn’t dream of writing in the margins of the books she reads. "Reading for me is a completely indulgent act; books are why I believe other worlds are possible, because I live in those worlds for the short period while I read a particular book," she says. "It feels offensive, like I’m committing a sacrilegious act by writing in a book, or even highlighting any part of it."

On the contrary, Ayesha Hasan, radio producer and avid reader, wouldn’t dream of not writing in them."Making small stars at the sides to remember thoughts/expressions, underlining and sometimes even writing my thoughts, questions in a few words in the side gutter spaces, is something I can’t do without."

"I guess it depends on whether the book is yours or not. I don’t like to read other people’s notes because their mindset doesn’t necessarily align with mine," says #1 Amazon bestselling author, Diana Murdock, while talking to TNS on Twitter.

Writing in books is perhaps just that to some -- leaving a literary legacy, dropping a little personal note, making an announcement that you were here, that you were alive and that you read this.

Ayesha Mirza, an A Level Sociology teacher, thinks otherwise: "I especially find scribbled texts from my students very interesting as I get to know more about them in this manner.

"As for myself, if I come across a passage/sentence/phrase that makes me sit up and take notice -- then I want to go over it again and understand how it was done -- i.e. technique and such," she continues.

As one reader succinctly puts it, "I love books so intensely I have to leave marks on them. The way books leave marks on me."

Writing in books is perhaps just that to some -- leaving a literary legacy, dropping a little personal note, making an announcement that you were here, that you were alive and that you read this.

Irtifa Nasir, assistant professor at a local university, is of the opinion that a book should not be too cluttered for comfort, but according to her: "Einstein didn’t have a clean blackboard". She says that one’s own thoughts are as important as the theory written in books and noting them down helps the reader better understand the subject.

Writing in the margins, underlining or highlighting written text are all acts of healthy interactions with the books and may well be among the highest tributes we pay to authors, according to the proponents of marginalia. It is what turns reading into a deeply personal experience and makes a book infinitely more valuable to them. A book blogger based in London, Tom Sabine, while talking to TNS, says that although most of the books he owns are secondhand, including a handful from the 18th and 19th centuries, their previous owners seem to have been "boringly careful and rather reticent".

"Generally, I shy away from books with a lot of handwriting in them, especially of the modern student variety. As for my own marginalia, encountered on rereading, I find it either brings back the past with a Proustian intensity or it puzzles me enormously -- proof, if it were needed, that each reading produces a new text," he adds.

For the readers who’re averse to writing in books, since books are to be passed on to the future generations, they shouldn’t be ‘contaminated’ with one reader’s thoughts of the moment. "No mark at all. I want my books to have only the words and marks they come with. Nothing more. If I really like to save some quote or words, I write those in my notes on my phone," says one Indian reader Bharti Bhagat, responding to a question I posted on a Facebook book club.

However, there are many other reasons for the opponents of marginalia to restrain from writing in books. Some would do it just because scribbled old books are not readily accepted by libraries. "I have stopped doing it, because I realised that if I ever had to move, I’d probably have to give some of my books away," says another reader Afaq Ahmad on the same thread. "People or libraries, unfortunately, appear more interested in taking in cleaner books."

Blogger Isbah Khalid says, "It’s almost sacred for me. My books don’t even have a line on their spines. I just put sticky notes at the back to note things down, but never on the pages of the book".

There are other ‘non-barbaric’ ways of taking notes on the passages you’ve just read, suggests Khalid, "In addition to noting down the page and paragraph number of noteworthy passages on post-its,I keep a note book with me in which I write one-liners or quotations that move me, along with my thoughts on the book as I read it".

According to Salam, there are other interesting alternatives to writing in books, "I actually take pictures of whichever part of the page I like, rather than taking notes on the page itself."

George Steiner, once defined an intellectual as "quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book". The proponents of marginal scribbling say it provides a window into the minds of the readers and their thought processes. The opponents are not so sure.

Conversing with books