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Of the Marking of Books there is no End

There is a simple but imprint structure to the marking of books. The first basic rule is that it is generally a sin to write in fictional books and generally a sin not to write in non-fiction. To scribble notes in fiction is generally wrong because fiction was not written for such forms of exegetical dissection, rather it was written to be read. And dammit, you need to subvocalize when you read fiction, I don’t care what anybody who’s taken a speed reading class says–you have to hear the story in your head or you’re not reading it at all. Now, as said, the rule against marking fiction is a general rule, not an absolute one. For example, consider this quote from Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:

“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of this world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

Seriously, you’d have to be insane or dead inside not to want to mark that. So mark away. I did. And that enabled me to find it to show to you here. Such are the sorts of exceptions that present themselves in fiction reading.

Non-fiction however is a different matter. Non-fiction nearly always demands that you mark it, it begs to be underlined, questioned, charted, and asterisked. And here is the crucial point about the marking of all books: it must be done in a freaking pencil, folks. Pens are forgivable, but only if you are in extreme circumstances, like being on a plane or that’s all there is, or you’re sitting on the toilet and all you have in your pocket is a pen. These are what we call justifiable events. What is not justifiable however, in any circumstance is highlighting of any kind in any form. This is simple desecration of the sacred trust that is the printed word. If you highlight you might as well buy a Kindle. I’m as serious as the state of our economy on this one. No highlighting. This is not a request, this is just the truth.


  1. Andy Edwards wrote:

    Amen, brother. My previous sins continue to haunt me whenever I return to a book from undergrad days. I can only seek divine forgiveness at this point. Yet even that doesn’t change the ink to lead.

    May God grant me the disposable income with which I may purchase new copies and start from scratch.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 1:09 am | Permalink
  2. Derek wrote:

    As a left-hander who who is an equal-opportunity smearer of both pen and pencil, do you have any guidelines for me Halden?

    Please don’t smite me

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 1:24 am | Permalink
  3. Colin wrote:

    I used to mark in books all the time when I was 14 or 15, and then I was overtaken with a commodity fetish and wanted to keep all of my brand new books in a perfect and pristine condition. While reading Marx’s Capital V. 1 I just started marking in them and haven’t quit since, thus overcoming/canceling said fetish.

    I do on occasion find notes that I wrote way back when and blush, they keep me humble.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 1:38 am | Permalink
  4. Colin wrote:

    Derek, I think a pencil should work fine in a tiny margin note in a book!

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 1:39 am | Permalink
  5. Jon wrote:

    Marking in books is of the devil – it belies a lack of confidence in your own memory and also completely skews any subsequent reading of the marker book in favour of your ‘first’ reading which is unlikely to be the best reading.


    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 2:28 am | Permalink
  6. Evan wrote:

    Book markings can be a pain when you buy a used book, and that’s kept me from marking my books up lately. My favorite example of this is a a used copy of Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma that I own, where the previous owner- obviously a very anti-Catholic Protestant- had meticulously pointed out all of the doctrinal flaws that he found. Another annoying thing is when a book has heavy underlines/highlighting/marginal notes in the first twenty pages or so, and then nothing after that. It’s funny when you can tell exactly where a previous reader lost interest and moved on to something else.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 5:45 am | Permalink
  7. D C Cramer wrote:

    I stick to pencil ‘stars’ in the margin and very rare underlining or circling of actual words. A simple star draws attention to the fact that there is something important in the nearby text. Too much marking is just patronizing your future self.

    Oh, and I’m left-handed too. Little stars don’t smear . . . too much.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 6:35 am | Permalink
  8. N. Dan Smith wrote:

    How about Biblical notation? I swung the gamut, going from being taught it was practically an essential spiritual discipline to forbidding anyone near it wit a writing utensil. For whatever reason, I am less tolerant of marking in my original languages volumes, probably because I know of the havoc which marginal notes have played with textual criticism.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  9. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I’ve been underlining with pen a lot lately in really nice books, but I’m okay with it.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 8:34 am | Permalink
  10. Chris Donato wrote:

    Second amen. I’ve several old seminary textbooks that are marked up in pen. I hate lending them out, and I always add the caveat: “Disregard the marginal notes, that guy’s an asshole.”

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 9:02 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    I actually sold most of my old books that had highlighting in them and then bought them again new–from a small locally-owned business!–so I could pencil them instead.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  12. adamsteward wrote:

    These kids come to me all the time selling their textbooks, and when I page through them to look at the damage, they always exclaim, “oh, I never write in my books” like that’s some kind of virtue! I simply find it unconscionable that someone could read a book and learn anything from it without underlining. Steiner said something once to the effect of an intellectual just being a person who reads a book with a pencil in his hand. You make connections, you find themes, etc.

    I fail to see why it would be any different with fiction (at least the good kind). I don’t know what they taught you at pcc, but at Madison High, they told us that fiction often contains themes, allusions, etc. that are often subtly drawn out by the writer. In these cases, I find it very helpful, as a practice, to keep notes about where the same sorts of things happened elsewhere. But I mean, if you don’t care about the craft of fiction, well, go ahead and keep it clean man!

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Its too robotic. You’re supposed to discover those themes through being engrossed in the narrative itself.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 10:29 am | Permalink
  14. adamsteward wrote:

    Yeah, if it’s a bedtime story. But so much good fiction is narratively uncompelling. Like for instance Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” Practically nothing happens in it – guy gets off a train in a town that’s burned down, he goes for a hike, makes camp and dinner, sleeps, and then goes fishing in the morning. But its one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read, and it’s all in the minutia.

    There’s just different aesthetics at work in the telling of stories some of them (The Lord of the Rings) you can get it all from the big picture – others you have to pay attention to smaller issues.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  15. Ken Brown wrote:

    You’re posting so much good stuff lately! I agree completely (as I did with the footnote/endnote one as well): Non-fiction is made to be questioned, so notations should reflect that; fiction is made to be lived-into, so marking notable passages is fine, but dissecting them in the margins is not

    BTW, as it happens I just wrote a couple posts drawing connections between the Lord of the Rings and Johannine theology, if you’re interested…

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Nice, stuff Ken. I like it.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  17. Cameron wrote:

    I prefer to use Post-It notes. That way I can undo my markings without the hassle of using an eraser. Sometimes I might catalogue my markings in a database so I have a better chance of remembering where I found something, especially if I don’t own the book.

    I really hate reading a second hand book in which somebody else has highlighted or (worse) underlined their favourite bits. It draws my attention to the passage, yet makes it difficult to read. I have a tendency to skip all the intervening text and go straight for the marked bit, which means I miss out on the author’s logic preceding the point.

    Notes scribbled in the margin are sometimes useful, especially if I’m having trouble understanding the passage, but I have found myself relying on those and not engaging the text itself. I might as well just read the Cliff Notes version.

    Short version: sometimes I want to deal with the text, not somebody else’s commentary, no matter how good it is. I try to extend the same courtesy to those who may own my books after me.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  18. Chris Donato wrote:

    Embellishing the mundane here: I’m with you Halden, on highlighting. I’ve never done it. I’ve not done much underlining either, though.

    The books I use for serious research are actually quite clean. That’s because there’s not enough room for notes, of course. They go down in a notepad that lies next to the book. And then, if I find the time, into a digitial document for storage. When reading good fiction literature, any thoughts, quotes, etc., go down in a journal or some such thing. I don’t want that stuff hanging around when I pick it up again years later.

    Check out this post on New Essential Research Tools.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  19. Scott wrote:

    LOL. I _teach_ speed reading classes, and you’re right, Halden, for fiction you need to go slow enough to be subvocalizing. And that’s what I tell my students. It’s also important to be clear what the difference is between reading really fast and skimming.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
  20. Hill wrote:

    My copy of LotR is so marked up that it has become self-defeating, because the unmarked passages are now the more conspicuous ones.

    And yes, anything other than pencil is likely to provoke physical violence from me. It also makes me want to cry when my pages get bent.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  21. I use the ultimate desecration still: the crayola crayon. It writes, highlights, underlines, and doesn’t actually smear in a book… normally. I know you know this Halden. Some day you will see the light.

    Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

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