Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Why we shouldn’t deface literature with analysis

Disclaimer: Obviously you can do whatever you like with your own books – whether that’s jotting down notes, dog-earing, tearing pages or even burning the whole thing. This is a discussion of methods, not an edict on the right way to do anything. That being said, if you scribble on other people’s books, you kind of deserve to rot in hell.

So, something that tends to divide people who have to do a lot of reading as part of their course is how you should treat the books you’re using.

I, of course, have my own methods. I avoid taking notes in the book unless they are more academic textbooks, my logic being that I am unlikely to pick it up again to read for pleasure. With poems, I tend to print out copies from the internet where possible rather than buying the book, in which case I write a lot of annotations because that’s a lot easier to keep track of on a few pages of poem than in a novel or text.

The advantage of writing in a book is that you can focus on specific passages and do perhaps more close-analysis

For me at least, I think it would be a lot harder to keep track of all the notes in a book if I had to go back and thumb through it. Of course, the advantage of writing in a book is that you can focus on specific passages and do perhaps more close-analysis. Plus, you don’t have to keep track of page numbers or copy out quotes.

However, I think fundamentally having imbedded notes rather than notes on something separate makes it easy for those notes to be very specific to certain lines or bits of information. Though not unhelpful, I find that for revision, at least for English Literature, at least for exams, it is much more interesting to have notes recapping chapters, noticing themes and taking note of repetitions. Furthermore, having all those notes together on a notebook page or, especially, a notebook app (which is what I do, so I can copy and paste easily) is helpful not only for revision but during seminars as well.  

The other big reason I think it’s ultimately a better idea to keep notes apart is that it’s very possible, in fact likely for some people, that you will ending up either selling or lending your books. Sure, a lot of people won’t mind at all if there are a few scribblings in the book, especially if they’re borrowing it and you’re doing them a favour.

Do not commit modern-day book-burning and keep your stationary away from the books

While in Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Women, annotations lead to the unification of the story’s lovers, I (a person in real life) really hate the thought of other people reading my disorganised margin notes. A lot of the times they probably won’t make sense, and if they do, they might very well be kind of inane or even obvious to some people. And nobody prefers to read a book that isn’t clean, do they? Even if I were wealthy enough in money and space that I could keep every book I bought, the thought of opening a book and hearing younger-me’s thoughts terrifies me.

At least those are the logical, well-thought-out reasons why you should not write on books. But, here’s the real reason: it is straight-up ASSAULT ON LITERATURE!

What is wrong with you?! Do you want to dig up Shakespeare’s bones and write on those, too?! A page is a person’s inner thoughts and ideas etched onto the osseous piece of leaf a tree died to give you.  A book is a sacred vessel of knowledge and culture. Without the written word, you’d probably be dead from disease, or starving because there’s no farming machinery, or being pillaged by Vikings. Do you think Plath, or Twain, or Melville, or Darwin would do such a thing? (Hang on, they all did that) Well do you consider your thoughts and feeling as important as Plath’s or Darwin’s? No? Ok. Do not commit modern-day book-burning and keep your stationery away from the books.

Or, for God’s sake, use a pencil, please?

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