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July 18, 2014 / Angela Sylvia

Defacing Books

Books are precious objects to me, and for all of my childhood and early adulthood the idea of taking a pen to that paper (aside from writing my name inside the cover in case a friend “forgot” to return The Sorcerer’s Stone) was foul, cruel, immoral.

I got over this some in college, circling favorite poems and writing notes in a novel’s margins so I wouldn’t forget what I wanted to say in class. I wasn’t tortured by some vengeful book god, and this act of defacing the page got me more involved in the reading, and possibly more involved in class.

Still, I never did that to my own books. A sense of wrongdoing, of messing up something pristine, acted like a near-physical wall.

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Books on their way to being scribbled in messes.

Recently I’ve taken pencil, pen, and sometimes highlighter to my own books, ones not for any kind of class, but there are limits even now. I underline and star passages in a nonfiction book I’m using for research, I again circle poems, and I scribble, underline, and highlight the writing craft books that have the most effect on me, the ones growing soft as I continually flip to random or favorite pages.

But my novels, in general, remain clean. Especially ones I’ve held onto and kept safe for so many years, like my Harry Potter collection. I even tend to hold my pen back from beautiful phrases in library book sale copies, ones I’ll likely pass on.

And there it is — the passing on. My brain, always too future-oriented, can’t help but take in the books on my shelves and think of who might read them someday — friends, family, used bookstore patrons, hypothetical unborn children. Aside from some very beat up copies, usually bought for a college class, I came into these books fresh, with no notes or underlines to influence me on my first run through, and I want the same for whoever reads them next.

‘They won’t want my shaky underlines, my nonsense inane annotations,’ I think, rarely clarifying for myself who “they” are. It would ruin the experience! They may even cast the book aside because I dirtied it too much.

I know how assuming this is, how unlikely, especially for the volumes I cling to. Still, I can’t help but worry how my thoughtlessness with a pen might affect the next person to pull back the cover.

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