My brother was horrified when I first showed him my copy of Leo Strauss’ On Tyranny. Half of it was highlighted in a host of colors, and there was a wide selection of pencil scribblings, black underlinings, red circles, and blue stars. I can’t deny it; the book doesn’t look as clean and pretty as it once did. But it’s obviously very well loved, and the marks attest to the hours and hours of time I’ve spent with it, giving it the devoted attention it deserves (and demands…being Leo Strauss). I had a professor tell me once that I shouldn’t write in my books because he had starved himself in graduate school, skipping meals to scrounge up the money to replace the books he had scribbled to death in his undergrad. Dr. N, I would like to respectfully disagree. You should have made that McDonald’s run.
Another professor told me that reading should be like taking your books out on a date, lavishing them with attention, having a conversation with them. To mark up your books is to have a conversation. You will never remember the things people say if you don’t listen attentively and respond, and you will never remember the things you read if you don’t listen attentively and respond. Writing in your books is a way to do this. I’ve found that it’s much easier to remember the passages that I’ve underlined, because when I underline something I make it my own. There’s a study that shows that the activity of writing with a pen helps with memory and cognitive ability. Beyond the practicality of making it easier to find on the page when you return to it, the process of selection recognizes the importance of that particular passage and ingrains it into your memory. Perhaps the different types of marks you make on the page of a book are like the various responses you can give when listening to someone. An underline is like a nod; an asterisk might be like a smile; a circle or a check mark could mean emphatic agreement. These are the types of gestures you make when you listen to someone speak; why not respond to written words the same way?
Of all the ways to give attention to your books I think marginal notations are the most important. When you respond to the text with your own thoughts on each side of the paragraph, you know you are listening well and absorbing what the book has to tell you, and you have something to say back. The book is inspiring you with new thoughts, ideas and questions of your own, which is exactly what it’s meant to do. If you’re writing in the margins, you are probably paying much closer attention to the text than if you were letting your eyes gloss over the page without effort. As a plus, it’s interesting to return to a well-scribbled book years later and see how your thoughts have grown and matured.
Is the final sullied product ugly in the eyes of strangers? Probably. But you have made that book your own, and you may find a proportional relationship between the degree of scribbling you’ve done in the book and the love you’ve developed for it.