Veneration or idolatry?

Books. I’ve said before that I love them, and I’m suspicious of writers who don’t read a lot (a lot for them, for some people that’s twelve books a year, for others three hundred) but I don’t get book idolatry.

For me it’s the content, not the object, that matters. Most of my books are paperbacks because they are easier to transport and all the good ones have notes in them. My notes. Scribbed in margins.

They have pages turned down, highlighting, bookmarks – you name it, I’ve found a way to deface the pristine page.


Because I’m a writer. Because thoughts, ideas, comments, questions, strike me as I read and where should I record them? In the book that inspired them, of course. Where else?

Lots of people seem to think books should be treated like relics and I just don’t get it! First, I believe that my ideas are as important (to me) as those of the published writer I’m reading and second because I’m engaged in a conversation with that book: an interrogation or commentary, and I want my responses to be right there alongside what prompted them. Third, I can always find my fleeting inspirations – they’re in the place that gave them birth.

My Terry Pratchett’s, for example, are so annotated they can barely be read by anybody except me. My copy of Treasure Island (first read age 8, then 11, then just about every year since) is cross-referenced to a history of Samoa and a biography of Fanny Stevenson, Robert Louis’s wife, so that reading one leads me to a section of another and back again. Why not? Does the author know or mind? No. But do I feel each reading reinforces and reinforms my own writing, yes I do.

So do you idolise your books, or venerate them enough to want to mark them up?

And yes, I am nanowrimo this year, but everybody will be writing about National Novel Writing Month as it starts today and I thought I’d do something different …


  1. Vanessa G
    2nd November 2007

    Hi Kay

    Like you, I write in the margins of many books.. the ones that send my mind spinning as I read.

    Often, I turn to the very back where there is sometimes a blank page, or the inside back cover, and whole paragraphs will appear… voices, connections, thoughts.

    You do however, have to be careful of getting so excited about a book that you lend it to someone who is not a writer, who then returns it and says:

    “…thanks for the book, but gosh, I felt as though I was going through your knicker drawer…”



  2. emma darwin
    3rd November 2007

    I agree: with the exception of a few beautiful editions which I love and care for, what a book physically is doesn’t bother me much until it actually starts falling apart. But apart from cookery books, I’ll only write in them in pencil, and I don’t turn down page corners: all defacements are reversible. I might change my mind about whatever I think, after all, and there isn’t enough room to cross out and re-write!

    And it makes me absolutely furious to find library books full of highlightings and underlinings. It’s more than the self-centredness of other kinds of minor vandalism, it’s as if that reader is imposing their judgements on those of us who follow.


  3. Sara
    3rd November 2007

    Oh! My books are pristine, they look unread, it is the bookseller in me I think. I can’t bear tattered books, can’t read library books with their fusty smell and other peoples invisible imprint. I don’t write on my books, don’t bend them. Oh, except for my Sylvia Plath collected poems, which are written on in different coloured pens to highlight different themes. I love it when I pick it up and notice my thoughts, but I dunno, I think it feels rude to the writer or something, in my own little head, to pt my words next to them.

  4. B.A. Goodjohn
    5th November 2007

    Let’s hear it for the annotated margin! Yes, lots of notes. In fact, I sometimes have to buy a new paperback version because I’ve filled up the margins and now I’m reading it again – maybe for another reason or with another viewpoint.

    What are you doing for NANO? Intrigued.

  5. August
    7th November 2007

    I’m with you all the way, K. All my books are in tatters from so much re-reading, pencil marks, 1st, 2nd, & 3rd notes. No book-binder’s glue seems to hold up to my furious delight in handling a book. In my home library one definitely knows which books are my favourites.


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