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Why you shouldn’t (usually) write in books

2 February 2016

Someone posted a link to this article on Facebook, and I strongly disagree Five reasons you should write in your books | Joel J. Miller:

Some will be scandalized. I’m an inveterate scribbler. That’s especially true when it comes to nonfiction, but even novels suffer a few slashes and asterisks. If writing in books ever becomes illegal, you’ll find me in the prison library, lurking in a corner, sharpening a smuggled pencil.

The author is mainly talking about writing in his own books, and since he owns them, that’s OK, but I find it excessively annoying when people write in library books. Finding a book where someone else has underlined things usually distracts from what the author is saying, and very often you don’t know whether the underliner was marking passages they agreed with or disagreed with.

Annotate2And even if it is my own book, I don’t generally underline things or highlight them, because if it is a good book, on a second reading something quite different might stand out for me, which I might have missed on a first reading. If I have underlined things, then I’m more likely to miss anything new.

The author  of the article also mentions indexing noteworthy passages in books, and I have less objection to that. Most books have several blank leaves at the end where this can be done. That can be a useful tool and does not distract other readers, and can be useful to them if they are looking for the same things.

Another exception I might be willing to make is where the book has factually incorrect information, for example a date or the name of a person or a place. But this should be rare, and should be reserved strictly for matters of fact rather than matters of opinion. Who was responsible for starting a war is a matter of opinion, but the date of a significant battle in that war is usually a matter of fact.

I have found that most of the things that Joel Miller finds useful about writing in books can be accomplished more easily and more efficiently by computer software.

There are several note-taking programs available, and one that I use for notes and quotes from books is askSam.

Using such a program it is easy to enter notes and quotes from books, with comments as well, and then to search for themes across several books. So, for example, if I want to find something that I read about myth and concepts, I can enter those two words as search terms, and it throws up this:

The nature of myth.
Source: Berdyaev 1948:70.
Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept. It is
high time that we stopped identifying myth with invention,
with the illusions of primitive mentality, and with anything,
in fact, which is essentially opposed to reality… The
creation of myths among peoples denotes a real spiritual life,
more real indeed than that of abstract concepts and rational
thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better
than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that
of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original
phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural
world, which has engraved itself on the language memory and
creative energy of the people… it brings two worlds together
symbolically.

Even if I’d underlined the passage in the book it would not have helped, because it was a library book, and even if I had the time to travel to the library, I might find that someone else had taken the book out.

So for annotating and indexing stuff that you find in books, there are now much better ways. Let your computer do the work. You can read about askSam and similar notetaking programs here or here.

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