Best Practices: On Marking Books

By Sheldon

“A virgin book bears no offspring.”
— Hasidic Proverb

Continuing a theme I’ve been on for a while, which is a retro journey through the wonders of dead-tree format information storage. Allow me this one indulgence from that uncannily prescient series from the 80’s, Max Headroom:

A favorite moment of mine in which Blank Reg, who somehow manages to navigate in the Brave New Cyber-World while hanging on to some of the wisdom of the past, explains to some empty-headed kid what a book is.

If you are a reader of books, especially if you read nonfiction, the question always comes up: to mark or not to mark. I used to avoid marking books, but in the last few years I’ve started making notes and comments in the margins with some underlining, due at least as much to a faltering middle-aged memory as anything else.

To Mark or Not to Mark?

Gradually, however, I have come to understand that the act of marking a book is more than an aide de memoire. It is an act of dialogue. In his novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s elderly former English Professor Faber describes the act of interacting with a book as one of the big differences between a book and the wall-sized television screens that we seem to approach with every consumer electronics show. You can argue with a book, he said, play God to it, but who can argue with full color and a 100-piece orchestra?

On the other hand, I have inherited or acquired books from other readers savaged with markings in ball-point pen or, perhaps worse, day-glo highlighter. It’s almost all one can do to look past the marking and see the text beneath it. It borders on sacrilege.

So, here are my rules:

Books: pencil only. Underline lightly. Marginal notes to a minimum. But those blank end papers are just the place for a little summary or longer comments. Take the time to do that.

  1. Highlighters are perfect for photocopies, since most copy paper is saturated in florescent dye to make the page appear brighter, somehow a highlighter doesn’t seem quite so gaudy.
  2. Highlighters are also acceptable for school textbooks, at least if you don’t plan on hanging on to them when the course is over (I kept all of mine, which should surprise precisely no one).
  3. Pens; ball-point, rollerball, or, for the truly refined, a fountain pen, are good for notes in the margins of photocopies, but resist the temptation to use them in books.

Those are┬ámy mostly arbitrary rules for making a book your own; a confidant, friend, and research colleague. Another good idea is to find a good review of the book, print it out, fold it up, and tuck it inside. I’ve been delighted at finding older books with reviews as faded newspaper clippings, tucked inside the dust jacket, proof that a book was taken seriously.


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