Marginalia as a lifestyle choice

Toby Lichtig writes at the Guardian book blog about his love of writing in book margins–not just notes, but addresses, phone numbers, etc. He writes:
My flirtation with textual mutilation started off at school with primly creased corners and pencilled underlinings, but I soon progressed to cocksure highlighting and full-blown ink-on-paper action – the effluence of engagement, the living, livid trace of dialogue. If, as the poststructuralists have suggested, the act of reading is an act of violence, then scrawling across the page in cheap biro must be its logical corollary.

I'm not just talking about highbrow jottings: notes and queries, references and witticisms, the literary art of "marginalia" (a term coined in 1832 by that keenest of annotators, Samuel Taylor Coleridge). No, in my library anything goes: doodles, numbers, addresses, lists, recipes and the ensuing food stains. Personalising my books is an intrinsic part of the interaction (which is why I tend to be neurotic about holding on to what I've read). Perhaps it's the fault of my somewhat sluggish memory: the marks and scrawls help me to recall the text – and, crucially, the person I was when reading it: how I was feeling, where I was sitting, whom I was with.
While I don't tend to use my books as notebooks, I do tend to read and eat simultaneous, and can remember whole meals from the food stains as I reread (much ramen has been eaten in my lifetime). I think this system of self-memory only works for people who are book buyers, not borrowers, and big rereaders, but it's a nice way to pretend that you're not the egoist with the Moleskine–you're the reader who happens to take notes.


  1. While I'm not much of a book marker-upper, I like his attitude. Thanks for the link.

  2. I AM a book marker-upper. I love beating up my books--throwing them in my back; bending the binding back until it cracks; dog-earring pages; and of course, writing and underlining with the same fanciful pleasure as Lichtig.

    For me, I think it just makes my books look devoured and well-loved.

  3. I love my books. They are my friends. I rarely write notes and thoughts on my friends.

    Considering I am a slob on the scale of Oscar in The Odd Couple I have no idea why I treat my books so tenderly. I have forty year old paperbacks read more than once yet still in mint condition. I have few friends in the same condition.

  4. I used to highlight my books until there was almost no black on white left. In Peter Pan, I highlighted every single character. Peter Pan was green, Tinkerbell was yellow, etc. I highlighted all their dialogue and any time they were mentioned. I don't know why I did this, but it was a great way to study characters!