Kathryn Williams: I’m pretty sure I can already see where this debate is going, so I will try to head it off at the pass. For your case against, you will argue the sacred inviolability of books as exalted vessels of wisdom, truth, and beauty, that writing in them is to mar them, to debase them, to blight their beautiful faces, in short, a sacrilege. And yet, here is where your argument will fall flat: you want to have your books—to cherish and display them as creamy white plains of possibility across which march the words of geniuses (and only geniuses)—and to eat them, too (okay, maybe not eat but digest, grapple with, understand, and remember). You want your books to be a lady on the bookshelf and a whore on the bedside table.
I’ll go ahead and give you that there may be a place in every library for a particularly sacred volume, one that deserves to go unmarked, un-underlined, undog-earred, and unstarred—a first edition, perhaps, an heirloom or a prized gift. However, the majority of books, perhaps all of them, are waiting for a reader’s marginalia, and these marks are themselves a hallowed symbol of the discourse between the reader and the read.
Emma Chastain: Ha! How wrong you are. Books aren’t sacred to me. I mean, they ARE, but I don’t think it’s morally wrong to write in them, highlight them, or put unicorn stickers on them. And yet I don’t do any of those things. Why? Because I’m a re-reader, and I can’t take the embarrassment.
Let me explain.
The only books I keep are the ones I intend to read again. Everything else gets donated, sold, or left on Melissa’s desk along with a creepy Post-It note (“thought you might enjoy this tale of a murderous stalker. Xxoo, your secret admirer”). And when I reread those treasured, favorite books, the only thing guaranteed to ruin my pleasure is encountering my own stupid marginalia. The sentences I underlined twice, for reasons unknown. The smiley faces next to perfect metaphors. The hysterical questions addressed to no one (“but doesn’t this contradict page 52?!”). The bewildered row of question marks next to a purportedly confusing sentence. It’s all too revealing of my younger, dumber self. And the scribbles that aren’t overtly embarrassing are just annoying. This time around, I don’t particularly want to obsess about Holden’s Swiss cheese sandwich and malted milk, but I’m forced to, because when I was 13, I highlighted that sentence in orange and put a giant star next to it.
Kathryn: I did not see that coming. And I applaud your habit of giving away old books, because I myself am a book hoarder. It’s a problem. I could have a TLC show. However, I can’t bring myself to part with them because what if I want to read them again one day…or reference the notes I took in them? How frustrating to remember (or think you remember) a line or character or theme or event from a book but not be able to find it in said book because you didn’t note it, however unobtrusively.
As for the marginalia shame, what if you look at it this way: Your book notes are your literary growth chart, and as such they are priceless, like the lined pantry doorjamb of your childhood home. Are you proud that you felt the need to write, in big block letters and underlined, “SYMBOL” next to the mention of Hester Prynne’s scarlet A? No, but if you hadn’t then, then today you might not grasp the symbolism of the exquisitely chained foot of the bird in the titular painting of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. For this you would be shunned at every dinner party you attended from late 2013 to early 2014, until Lorrie Moore’s Bark came out. Is that a price you’re willing to pay?
Emma: I grasp symbolism just fine (the scarlet A symbolizes good grades, right?), and I never once had to consult my high school copy of The Scarlet Letter while reading The Goldfinch. If you want to retain information, don’t highlight. It doesn’t help. What helps: copying your favorite quotations, by hand, into your journal. Highlighting, scribbling, underlining—it’s too easy. It’s not engagement; it’s graffiti. Leave your books untouched, unsullied, like a series of pristine pools you can dive into over and over again as you get older.
Kathryn: Sadly, I have never been a good journal-keeper. Instead, I end up with widely scattered Post-It notes, Dollar Store memo pads, abandoned Moleskine notebooks, and random files on my computer with sad, lonely, unmoored phrases and lines like, “saves exactly what they did till last paragraph = we colluded, laughing (delayed realization), which is why it hurts so much.” What hurts so much? my future self might ask, having no idea what this note refers to. If I made my notes in a separate place from the reading itself, I’d have to have a bookshelf next to my bookshelf—and a much better filing system. So perhaps my marginalia is not a result of my literary engagement but my general slovenliness as a person. Reader, know thyself.
Are you for or against writing in books?