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The art of writing in a book… What thoughts run through your head when you read that line? Do you consider it a sin to write in a book, or do you grab a pencil every time you read?

Generally, I fall into the former camp. Books are meant to be preserved and respected, right? Marking, folding, or otherwise altering the original quality of the pages would ruin the sanctity of reading. If someone leaves a book facedown, I find them a bookmark to properly close the book. If someone dog-ears a page, I aggressively hand-iron the spot to flatness.

My perspective changed a little after I read an eye-opening article by journalist Anne Fadiman called “Never Do That to a Book.” She starts the essay with an anecdote about a family vacationto Europe. Her brother Kim, after finishing his nighttime reading, set the book facedown on his bedside table. Later, the chambermaid slips a paper between the pages and closes the book, with a note atop declaring “SIR, YOU MUST NEVER DO THAT TO A BOOK” (Fadiman 261).

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From this experience and decades of observation, Fadiman classes readers into two categories: courtly lovers and carnal lovers. In courtly love, readers consider it their duties to “conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller” (Fadiamn 262). Some courtly lovers go so far as to keep two copies of the same book – one for reading and one for storing prettily on a shelf.

Carnal love, by contrast, regards the words as holy, but not the paper, cardboard, and other materials, which act merely as a vessel to contain the words. “Hard use was a sign not of disrespect,” Fadiman writes, “but of intimacy” (Fadiman 262). Carnal lovers make a book their own by “transforming monologues into dialogues” – a feat most efficiently achieved by adding one’s words directly beside the book’s (Fadiman 263-264). That is to say, writing in the book.

In my current read-in-progress, How to Read a Book, the authors Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren also address this subject. How to Read a Book focuses on learning to read intelligently. They recognize four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and synoptical. To progress from the elementary level where many readers stall, one must engage in conversation with the author, which comes by making oneself a part of the book.

“Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself  part of it is by writing in it” (Mortimer 49).

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By writing in a book, you actively engage with the words and ideas. You can ask questions, give answers, and record thoughts that occur to you while reading.

In the past, I would make notes on separate sheets of paper. If I liked a particular passage, I would copy it down. If I had a comment on a section, I would write down the main parts of the section and then note my thought. As you can imagine, this greatly interrupted the reading process.

Thus, as of late I have begun writing in my books. (The nonfiction ones, not the fiction ones. I doubt that my little brothers will appreciate me taking notes in novels that they’ll have to read in a few years.) While some take pen and marker to the pages, I stick with the basic pencil that I can erase and edit as I read and reread a text.

What effect has this new practice had on my reading experience?

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First, I remember more of what I read.

Second, I form more connections with the work. For example, I realize more quickly how the ideas from one chapter connect to the ideas in another, and how these ideas relate to those in other works.

Third, I gain more from a book than I did just reading it, lover of books though I’ve always been. Rather than just reading the author’s thoughts, I am challenged to think my own throughout the book. I become an active participant in the development of the book’s theme.

Fourth, I’ve had more fun reading.

While I haven’t converted entirely to the carnal love of Anne Fadiman (i.e. tearing pages out, dog-earing corners), I have started to allow more of that reader style into my courtly love in the pursuit to truly own my books, not just possess them.

What do you think about writing in books? Do you write in yours?

Fadiman, Anne “Never Do That to a Book”
How to Read a Book, by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren