Writing in books

While I was up in Portland, we were looking at one of the papers on the fridge of the house that Jofish is renting. It was for a high school English class, where the students were supposed to read some Dickens novel, and then scribble in the novel to demonstrate their connection to the text.

I think that’s silly. I’ve read many books with which I strongly connected, and which had an impact on how I think, and I have never marked up one of my books. Which got me thinking – why is it that I don’t mark up books? Is it because I grew up reading lots of library books where that was right out? Is it because the sheer permanence of marking up a book is too much for my fearful personality, scared of leaving any sort of impression? If you guessed (d) None of the above, congratulations! Well, okay, it’s probably elements of all of these, but there’s another reason that appeals to me.

I often buy books from used bookstores. Occasionally, I buy books that have been marked up by the previous owner. And it drives me _nuts_. Why? Because they’ve highlighted certain lines or passages. And so my eye and my attention is drawn to those passages. But the highlighted passages are often _not_ the passages I think are interesting. So it’s disruptive to my personal experience of the book, because I keep on getting distracted by these markings that don’t fit how I want to experience the book.

So what’s the problem with me marking up my own books? I’ll mark up the passages that I find interesting, and it will make it easier for me to find them again, right?

This gives me an excuse to trot out an old theory of mine (check out the 2/26/00 entry at the bottom of my former unformed thoughts page). Why do I re-read books at all? After all, I’ve read the book, I’ve absorbed the information, and the words on the page aren’t going to change. So what’s the point?

My theory is that even though the words in the book don’t change, _I_ change between the times I re-read a book. My personal collective has evolved, incorporating new ideas, finding new ways to view the world, using a different framework. And so what I get out of a book when I read it now may be entirely different from what I got out of reading it five years ago (a phenomenon I’ve experienced many times). If I marked up the book, though, I might be trapped into my old way of perceiving the book, when part of the reason I’m re-reading the book is to experience it with a fresh mind.

So that’s my theory. In response to it, I tend to scribble notes on a piece of paper while I’m reading a book to remember key points that I want to mention in my review of the book. And I leave the piece of paper in the book when I’m done reading it, and it goes on my bookshelf. If I want to reference something from the last time I read it, I can refer to the paper. If I want to start with a blank slate, I tuck the paper away without looking at it. Best of both worlds.

All of this speculation out of a random English assignment hung on a fridge. Who’da thunk it?

Tomorrow (or whenever I get to it), we’ll apply this concept of how books change because our worldview changes. In particular, I’ll examine why I find business books more relevant than ever to my daily life.

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