It’s ok to write in books

Growing up, books were treated with a lot of respect in my family. They were the source of all knowledge, and weren’t particularly cheap either. There was perhaps some religious aspect to it too? I know that at least one of the many Hindu Gods is a God of Knowledge (and wisdom?). Not sure. In any case, books were revered. So much so that if a book fell down, I would quietly apologize for having dropped the book.

This attitude towards books was helpful in that it encouraged me to develop an interest in books. But it also had a big drawback – books became so precious that I was afraid of “bespoiling” books in any way. I was very careful when reading a book – I would open it barely enough to be able to read it, but I would try my best to not open it so wide that it left creases on the spine. I had to somehow keep the book looking as good as new, for as long as possible. And writing or marking anything inside the book? That was tantamount to sacrilege. I just could not imagine leaving any permanent marks inside a book.

I therefore never really took notes in the context of what I was reading. I had a separate notebook for taking copious notes, yes, but I didn’t really have a good system to connect my notes with specific portions of a book.

With the advent of e-books and Kindle, I finally had a place where I could indeed take contextual notes. I used the highlight option in e-books quite a lot, and I enjoyed seeing what others had highlighted. But I never really used the note taking feature too much.

Stumbling across this podcast with Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe, completely changed my attitude towards books (must listen episode by the way!). He talks about his approach to books in this podcast:

  1. He buys mostly second hand, hard bound books (they’re cheaper and since they’re hard bound, they last longer)
  2. He keeps multiple books lying around the house – thus making it easy to pick up a book and start reading any time
  3. He makes notes as he’s reading in the margins of the book. He even writes down page numbers of pages where a book has interesting insights, at the back of books
  4. He sometimes flips through books that he’s read in the past, and refers to his notes as a quick refresher

I find that reading a physical book is way more enjoyable than reading an e-book. And being able to see a whole bunch of books physically in front of you has much higher probability of serendipity than having a bunch of “read” books on your Kindle (I’ve written about how every book has its time).

And nothing can beat taking notes by hand. The tactile feel of pen hitting paper is very different than typing something out. Being able to open up a book and see portions that you’ve underlined, or the notes that you’ve taken, serve as such a wonderful reminder of what struck you when you read that book. You might even get new ideas and inspiration as you peruse through your earlier notes.

Like these few sentences that I’ve underlined in 84, Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff. This made me smile when I randomly picked this book off my shelf earlier today.

Joy of reading secondhand books – 84, Charing Cross Road

There’s even an official term for this. It’s called “Marginalia”. Quoting from Wikipedia – “Marginalia (or apostils) are marks made in the margins of a book or other document. They may be scribbles, comments, glosses (annotations), critiques, doodles, or illuminations.”

Example of marginalia from centuries ago. Source: Wikipedia

I now underline my books without any qualms, and take notes all over without any hesitation (my post on bone folders came after I read about them in a book! See below). This habit has made my reading experience much more fun and engaging! 🙂

On bone folders in “How to make books” by Esther K. Smith

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