I have never willingly written in a book. In high school, I spent many a free period arguing with English teachers about their childish requirements to write our “thoughts” and “feelings” about a text directly in the margins. I insisted that the same goal could be achieved by writing on a separate sheet of paper, while keeping the text squeaky-clean. Unfortunately, I would typically be forced to cave on behalf of my grade, with the final words of the teacher being “do it or else you won’t pass the assignment, because I said so.” But, my forced marginalia would be a reflection of my reluctancy- out of spite I would mock and dutifully criticize every line I could, my notes often filling the entire margins. Sometimes, I would write small enough so that on a page my marginalia contained more words than the text itself.
There is no good reason for marginalia. In fact, marginalia is bad. Let’s start with an analogy:
I’m in the Met. A certain painting strikes me in some way, and I want to express my opinion. To do this, I wouldn’t saunter on up to the painting and scribble on the white wall next to it. This would distract from the painting itself, as others could not see the work of art independent from my ugly scrawls. It also borders on vandalism. Sure, this isn’t quite the same as writing in a book, since books are mass-produced and owned by individuals, but the idea holds true. Whenever you write in a book, you take away from the original text because someone reading after you cannot block out your writing. There is a sort of purity in a clean book- a sort of truth. You see exactly what the author wanted you to see.
If you have a used book that you plan to return or pass on, the amount of arrogance or inconsideration (depending on intention) it takes to write marginalia is mind-boggling. If you think your writing adds something to the text that others after you should see, you are narcissistic. People read a book to read the book, not your writing. Frankly, no one cares what you have to say. I read Shakespeare to read Shakespeare, not some random note from some random guy pointing out that the way in which Shakespeare writes a line strikes him as “funny.” If you are simply writing notes without much thought as to who else will have the book after you, you are insensitive. Marginalia is disrespectful to people who read a text after you.
Marginalia is also disrespectful to the author. The author put out a work exactly how he wanted others to see it. Do you know how much time it takes to write a book? The effort it takes to make every line as good as you can? A book is a work of art like that painting in the Met. You wouldn’t taint the painting by writing next to it, so why do so many people taint books?
Marginalia is vandalism.
Some ‘side notes’…
For a book that is solely yours and will never be read by anyone else, knock yourself out with marginalia. In my opinion, you’ll only clutter things up more (both in the text and in your mind), but I’m in no position to stop you. However, if there is any chance whatsoever of someone reading the book after you, you should not write marginalia.
Highlighting, unlike marginalia, has its place in used/public books as well as personal books. It is a great way to condense textbooks and other scholarly texts, and can often help others. In a typical used book such as a novel, however, highlighting is not appropriate for reasons similar to marginalia; it is distracting, and no one else cares what you found interesting enough to highlight.
Digital marginalia that can appear by clicking a button is a great idea. This maintains the original text, keeps from distraction, and if someone doesn’t want to see your annotations, they just don’t press the button.
If you’re wondering whether or not you should write something in the margins of a book- just don’t.