Are you a carnal book lover or a courtly book lover?
That’s one of the questions we’ve been asking ourselves lately in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club, inspired by Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, a book we read together several years ago. Fadiman says: “I came to realize that just as there is more than one way to love a person, so is there more than one way to love a book…. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us, a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel.”
The MMD Book Club is where we’re learning to read better, together—and that means reading a selection together to discuss each month, but also special content and regular classes that helps us get more out of our reading lives. Books are tools. Perhaps the most important tools, but tools all the same.
We try to avoid using the word “should” around here; there are very few shoulds in the reading life. (In I’d Rather Be Reading I call it “the bad s-word.”) But we do hope to convince you that you can write in your books.
Our class for November was officially titled Why and How to Write in Your Books, but unofficially, we’ve been referring to it as Marginalia.
Our Book Club Community Manager, Ginger Horton, is a self-proclaimed carnal book lover. Her husband, Matthew, loathes borrowing books after she’s read them because he teases she reads everything as if it’s a textbook. She’s not afraid to mark them up, write in the margins, underline and highlight and dog ear a book. She shared her system, honed over the years, with us in our Why and How to Write in Your Books class, and I asked her to show and tell you a little more here.
I’ll let her tell it. Enjoy! – Anne
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Marginalia has a storied (pun always intended) history. People like Mark Twain wrote in margins (bonus points if you get that reference). And Samuel Taylor Coleridge. And John Updike.
One of my favorite anecdotes surrounding marginalia comes from John Adams arguing with an author in the margins of a book, where the author writes: “In the historical record villains are ‘unmasked at length.’” Adams notes: “Not always.” The author goes on to say, “And the honest man is justified before his story ends.” Adams: “Not always.”
Why might you want to write in your books? Well, for one, reading is a solitary activity, for the most part. Unless you read with a pen in your hand.
The words have been written, edited, printed. Separated by geography or time or even language, you may never get the chance to interact with the author.
I write in my books to make them my own, to slow down the reading process for enjoyment or comprehension, to remember points to check back on later. In fact, Mortimer Adler argues that we don’t really even own a book until we mark it up (side note: don’t write in books you don’t own… this goes for the library or borrowed copies). While I don’t quite agree with Adler there, once I got hooked on writing in my books, I’ve barely been able to read without a pen in hand ever since. [I personally favor a Space Pen, since you can hold them in any position without having to scribble to start the ink, or a Mildliner highlighter.]
Literary critic George Steiner said “An intellectual is, quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.” I don’t know about that either, but I do know I get more out of my reading life when I’m thinking about the text, asking questions, conversing with the author, even if it’s just in the margins.
If you’re courtly at the moment, but would like to become just a little more carnal with your books, perhaps pick just one of these methods to start. I suggest underlining, even in light pencil if you prefer. You can skim through later to find the most important thoughts, or flip through to remember the beautiful language you loved, or quickly pull out a few character details that stood out to you when someone asks years later what you loved about the book.
underline: something important to remember/beautiful writing
curved bracket (like one singular parentheses): larger thought, important to remember
[square bracket]: something to question/disagree with (? question mark in margin if needs further thought)
✰ A-frame star: action item
✴ Asterisk: key theme (limit these stars to ten or less, so they stay the most important thoughts)
Dog ear (now, happily replaced by a book dart): permanent takeaway, quotes and thoughts to come back to again and again
the letter “t”: title of the book embedded in the text or story
the letter “A”: alliteration, especially used for poetry, but always a delight to find in prose
numbers: sequential arguments (especially nonfiction), idea taken from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book
Front cover: write when & where & why acquired book (if significant/special such as a trip or a gift, recommendation from a friend or trusted source―like an inscription to myself)
Back cover: flight books, people I want to recommend this book to, initial thoughts for reviewing book (pithy book talk)
If you’d like to learn more about marginalia, our MMD Book Club events are recorded and available to watch afterwards anytime, which means members have access to classes like this one plus others like One Hour to a Better #Bookstagram and How to Get Your Hands on Advanced Review Copies. If you have a book lover in your life, even if that book lover is you, we have monthly and annual gift memberships available.
I’d love to hear your relationship with marking up your books. Are you appalled by the idea, or are marginalia indispensable to your reading life? Please tell us—and by all means, share your favorite tips and tricks—in the comments section.