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To Write or Not to Write (In Your Books)


To Write or Not to Write (In Your Books)

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To Write or Not to Write (In Your Books)

Is it "messing up" a book to write in it? Or is it just making it your own?


Published on May 2, 2024

Portrait of Emile Verhaeren by Théo van Rysselberghe (1915)

Painting of a man sitting at a desk, bent over a pile of papers and books, writing on one of the papers

Portrait of Emile Verhaeren by Théo van Rysselberghe (1915)

I have always wanted to be a person with a magic bag. You know the kind—they dump their tote/purse/satchel/bag of holding out on a table, and everything you’d ever need and 15 things you didn’t know you wanted come spilling out. There are surprises, and sometimes cash. It seems very magical to me, a person who pulls a bag out of the closet, puts the four things I absolutely have to have in it, and leaves the house. I have tried to be a magic bag person, but I get twitchy. Those things should be put in their right places! And what if I want to carry a different bag?

This feels, in a way I cannot precisely pinpoint, akin to the way I feel about books, and the things you might find in them. Notes, underlines, passages marked with multiple exclamation points. Postcards, receipts, love notes. Post-its with chicken-scratched mini-manifestos, concert tickets, movie ticket stubs.

A bit of hypocrisy: I would love to be a person who writes in books, but I hate it when I buy a used book and discover someone else’s notes or highlights. I don’t want their moments of emphasis, their important lines, their opinions, overlaid on my own. It feels like reading one of those websites where random sentences and snippets have been put in boldface type, to draw your eye; it is virtually impossible to read those sentences in the order their authors intended. 

And yet there is something about writing in books—about making your books your own—that speaks to me. Yes, it’s just a simple thing, a little note here, an underline, an emphasis. Just do it! the people who think there is a simple answer to everything might cry. 

I can’t.

I have tried. I put so many post-its in one collection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s essays that I eventually did give up and just started underlining, but then, is there a point to underlining when you are underlining sentences on every page? At what point are you just saying to yourself, Yes, yes, cram this into my brain, make it stay there, please? At what point should I simply start transcribing most of the essay into the commonplace book I am also trying and failing to keep?

A commonplace book seemed, to me, a good middle ground between wanting to be a person who writes in their books and absolutely failing to be that person. The idea, as I understand it, is that you write in the book things that you would like to remember: quotes, great lines, what have you. I’m sure this is very effective for some, and possibly more so if one did not foolishly buy two very nice pens with which to write things in one’s nice notebook (one color for the quotes, one for the attributions) and then decide that one’s handwriting is so messy that it’s sullying the beauty of the words one is trying to write down.

And herein lies the problem: I cannot get past the feeling that I am messing up my books. They’re mine, yes. It should be fine if I mess them up with my rusty handwriting and my mundane observations. It is fine if anyone else does that; it is not fine if I do. I have one or two books that used to belong to my stepfather, and I keep them because they are full of his notes. Will I ever read The Will to Power cover to cover? Uncertain. But I know his scribbles are in there, his thoughts, the things that mattered to him. And so the book matters to me a great deal.

Some part of me knows why I can’t do it: it’s a long-lived habit born of years spent never quite having exactly the things I wanted to have. It’s the same impulse as buying a nice article of clothing and then never wearing it, because I’m “saving” it for some special occasion that may never arrive. Some part of me balks, not wanting to mess up the books I have so carefully collected and moved across the country (twice). But is it messing up a book to write in it? Or is it just making it your own?

Once in a very rare while, you might pick up a book in a bookstore and find something falling out of it. A note, a bookmark from a place you’ve never been. A postcard, once, addressed to someone named Paul. A well-worn paperback hidden among the brand-new books in a small store, a little story inscribed in the inside front cover. The only books I’ve managed to write in are the ones I read in college; I wrote the class titles and semesters inside the back covers. I still know, without looking at my scribbles, what classes and years those books were from. I made my little mark and I marked them in my memory at the same time. 

Sometimes there is value in doing the things it feels so strange to do.

We are all capable of containing multitudes. I can believe that the important part of a book is the story within it, not the short-lived physical object, and yet still be essentially incapable of wanting to muck about with that object. I can think it is somewhat silly to decorate a home with unread books just because of how they look, and yet not want to take the dust jackets off my own books, even though I always, always take the damn things off when I’m reading them. I can want to find bits of magical ephemera in books, and still be afraid that if I stick anything even slightly meaningful in one of mine, it will be forgotten, lost forever.

I think there is a way—a dreamy way, a way I don’t know how to be—where a person’s library is more than just a library. Well, no: A person’s library is always more than just a stack of books, because it has been curated, chosen, weeded, winnowed down, expanded, selected, shaped. But I mean this more literally: Books can hold other things. I love the idea of keeping all one’s mementos in one’s beloved books—all those notes and tidbits and scraps of meaningful paper that accumulate in a lifetime; receipts from first dates and meaningful occasions, birthday cards, the terrible joke someone passed you in a meeting one day that you can never repeat but you still think of every time you think of Game of Thrones

A collection of books is a collection of things, stories, ideas, characters that matter to you, right? But what if there were also your own things and stories and ideas, tucked in between the pages? Isn’t that what writing in books is, sort of? Isn’t it a way of pressing yourself between the pages?  icon-paragraph-end

About the Author

Molly Templeton


Molly Templeton has been a bookseller, an alt-weekly editor, and assistant managing editor of, among other things. She now lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods.
Learn More About Molly
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