Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Do you write in your books? My crazy approach

I also could have called this post: I write in my books. . . how 'bout you?

A little more background. . . Jim West recently spoke out against bibliobloggers who do not open up more about themselves (among other things) and simply write serious academic posts. He states,

Must every post be an academic publication in kernel form and must every thought be weighed in the balance of potential ‘tenure’ issues?
He probably doesn't care much for my posts--I do tend to provide a lot of footnotes. But I enjoy being thorough--it's not hard labor. (As to the second charge, I doubt anyone thinks I'm concerned with tenure issues! I've posted on a number of controversial issues!)
[edited: this paragraph was uncalled for. . . as Jim explains in the com-box, he really is not opposed to academic posts in and of themselves.]

Nonetheless, I do think Jim is right when he goes on to criticize scholars for being too self-important and stuffy. Let's not take ourselves so seriously. And, looking over my posts of late, I have been a bit serious.

So here's a peak into my demented approach to reading.

Once I was waiting for a friend, who was going to meet me at a bookstore. We were going to go see a movie but I wanted to do a little book shopping first.

I waited for him outside and while I was waiting I was reading a great book. When he showed up he horrified by what I had done to the book I was working on; it was dog eared, highlighted, written up with a pen--I'll admit, it wasn't a pretty sight. His exact words were, "It looks like you've put teeth marks in it!" (That however I did not do--it was just his way of saying that I had really, severely, disfigured the book).

He then asked: "Is it an old book?" I said, "No. I bought it last week." This traumatized him even more!

However, he dropped the matter and brought up something else. I gathered my things together and we headed into the bookstore.

Yet every time I picked up a book he would try to put me on a guilt trip: "Look at how nice that book looks. It's so new. It smells nice and fresh. It's pages are nice and crisp, not to mention clean. What are you going to do to that poor book, Michael Barber?"

I have to admit, though I didn't reveal it to my friend, I had never really thought of things in that way. I go to books to use them and marking things up helps me find things that I need in them. I never thought it wrong to mark them up--or, as my friend insinuated, to "defile" them. And, for the most part, I still don't!

I write in almost all of them, even the ridiculously expensive ones, e.g., titles from Brill, Mohr-Siebeck, etc.

But I'm not entirely indiscriminating. First, I do try to keep the outside of books looking nice. I try to preserve dust jackets. I take them off when I'm reading a book, putting it back on when I'm done. And I do hate cracking the spine of a book--they look terrible on a shelf after that.

Second, I won't just write with anything in my books. I've learned from experience. I've marked up books with ugly highlighters that, once dried, turned a hideous color which made it difficult to re-read the text. ENOUGH! Now I use only one kind: the bright yellow Sharpie Accent highlighters with the thick tip (see picture). I buy them by the box--no kidding!

Here's the really sad part: I'm almost so dependent upon them that if I can't find one, I'll put off reading altogether! In fact, I have not a few pairs of pants which are unwearable because some unfortunate oversight caused a highlighter explosion in a pocket. Bright highlighter stains can be found on almost all of my jeans, in my car, in my luggage, etc.

I also have drawers filled with highlighters that I've already used that I want to save for books with especially thin pages. It's less likely their ink will bleed through such fine pages. In addition, I have hoards of highlighters that well-meaning people have given me over the years. Unfortunately, they are either not my brand or the wrong "yellow". I'm always finding these in odd places and have to throw them away.

Yes, I know, I'm beginning to sound like Adrian Monk.

But just so you know I'm not a complete nut, there are also a few exceptions to the "must-highlight" rule. I can't bring myself to write in the follwing:
1. my Hebrew-English edition of the Babylonian Talmud that my wife gave me for my 30th birthday
2. my autographed copy of Pope Benedict's book Many Religions, One Covenant (signed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger before his elevation to the papacy)
3. my perfectly clean and crisp copy of Matthias Scheeben's, Mysteries of Christianity, which was printed in 1951, is terribly hard to find and a book which has influenced my thought profoundly (I have another copy that is marked up though).

So here's my question: Do you write in your books? Do you have particular books you can't bring yourself to scribble notes in or mark-up with a highlighter?

One last thing, this post was inspired by something Bill Heroman recently put up on his blog. Check out what he did to his copy of the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. I might do something similar to mine. I must say, while I'm in agreement with his criticism of this volume, I am a little offended by the way he vandalized the spine's of his Loeb Classical Library. . . Surely, if there's a line to be crossed this is it! Bill--you've gone too far!!!

It's a good thing he isn't a private owner of any of the Dead Sea Scrolls! What he might do with 4Q521, the War Scroll, or 4Q174 will keep me up at night. Not that I have reasons to think it might happen, but just as a precautionary matter, I'm appealing to all interested scholars: let's take whatever means necessary to prevent Bill from obtaining any of the Dead Sea Scrolls for his personal library.


Nick Norelli said...

I write in pretty much all of my books, except for some reason, my Greek NTs. Here's some pictures of how I write in some books.

Jim said...

on the contrary, i read every post you write. (and i wasnt lamenting academic posts- just pretense and self serving self interest).

and i write in mine too.

Brandon said...

I write sparingly in the marginalia with pencil. But I also like to buy hardcover books and keep in good shape. I don't think I've used a highlighter since Jr. High--especially on a book. :-)

Schmilga3000 said...

I can't do it. If I re-read something I am coming at it entirely different then when I first read it. I find I am able to not be influenced on how I thought before and able to extract new profound insights when I otherwise would have focused on the ones I made when I first read it.

Sister Mary Agnes said...

I didn't used to write in books, because I was taught in the novitiate to take care of everything as though it belongs to someone else. After all, when I die some day all those books need to be in good shape to go in the community library.

When I started attending JP Catholic, I was horrified the first time you suggested in class that students write in their books! However, you have succeeded in winning me over. I write in all the books now that I know I will be using when I teach in the future. Not only that, I use different colored ball point pens to differentiate my notes from one another. So much for my novitiate training! Now that I am a novice mistress, I am having my young sisters buy certain books that they can write in . . .

Anonymous said...

I don't write in my books, but I'm slowly being won over to the idea. More hardbacks would make it easier.

Chuck Grantham

Stephen C. Carlson said...

I almost never ever write in books. When I do, only in pencil and only to point out errors.

Brant Pitre said...

I've gone back and forth on this one over the years.

When I first got to college, I had a professor who GRADED us on whether we wrote in our books or not!
That's how he would check our grading each week; he would gather up all the books at break and look them over!

But then it got so bad that I was writing so much and underlining everything that it would take me 4-5 times as long to read a book! (You should check out my copy of Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism; the whole final section on Paul is one big underline! Which kind of defeats the point.)

So, I stopped altogether. Started taking handwritten notes instead. Problem--can't find the notes; can't find the points. No good system of keeping them. End up using the books and not the notes.

A couple of years ago, I finally found a compromise. As you well know, Michael, I use the EXACT same sharpies as you! As, just like you, I WILL put off reading if I can't find one. But that's why I have about 20 in my desk drawer :)

On one final note, you should definitely highlight the 30volume Hebrew-English Talmud. I highlight in mine, and on a few occasions I've gone back and found things I forgot about.

It's so LONG, after all...

Michael Barber said...

Thanks for the visuals--although, pink highlighter? Really?

Sorry for making it sound like you were out to abolish academic posts--you're right, you didn't say that. I've edited the post to reflect that. And I really do appreciate knowing you stop by. Thanks also for weighing in on the matter.

Wow. No highlighter since Junior High? Funny thing is, I don't even remember using them back then!

That's a very interesting take. Makes me wonder if I'm missing out--but not enough to break me of my habit!

Sister Mary Agnes:
Uh-oh. I hope I haven't done some real damage to your community.

Chuck Grantham:
C'mon, join us highlighters. It's funny and easy. Join us... JOIN US!!!

Steven Carlson:
Thanks for casting your vote. Pointing out errors, especially references to various sources, is a very good idea.

My copy of Spirit of the Liturgy is almost unreadable because I underlined it too much. It's terrible. And yes, great minds think a like--these Sharpie highlighters ROCK!

So it seems that we're split pretty much down the middle on this so far.

Sean said...

No way will I write in pen in my books. They will long out live me, and some lucky student will one day find them in a second hand bookshop and be blessed or provoked (I hope!). Only pencil, NO pens or markers! Sha, I'm shocked Michael!

Anonymous said...

You are a man after my own heart - stained pants and all. I'm moving more and more out of the highlighting phase - trying to make the notes more reflective in my computer, but it still depends a little on the price of the book.

$20-$30 and I will highlight freely. This book is mine forever and I will want to find the key points quickly time and time again.

For more expensive ones, I usually use dots and dashes in the margins to find my point.

Light pencil only (and very rarely) for any primary sources.

I hate getting used books where someone sloppily underlined (in pen) everything. Usually they do this in one chapter then give up.

Sometimes I will photocopy a chapter out of a book or dictionary - e.g. DJG - and use that as my working copy.

Aristocles said...

I enjoy your blog. I do love the pictures you find (in addition to the articles). But that is one thing you don't footnote. I often wonder who painted this or that. Hey, I'm just suggesting a way you can be thorough, like you said you like to be.

Pax Christi

Bill said...


Michael, I'll look forward to inspiring you in some other areas as well someday, I hope.

I hereby promise not to write in any ancient manuscripts, ever, so long as I live. Please forward any funds already collected for the prevention exercise. I'll consider it a noble bribe! ;)

Blonde Tiffany said...

Umm, what are books? Are they those things that look a little like magazines only bigger, and without the scratch n sniff and the photos of Zac Efron and the Jonas Brothers? I don't write in my magazines, though I did draw a mustache and Groucho brows on Vanessa Hudgens for dating my Zac!

Josh McManaway said...

I have a weird routine. I read all of my new books twice through. The first time I highlight things, the second time I write notes.

I can read without a highlighter, but I'm always frustrated when I want to find a passage and have no idea where it is because I forgot a highlighter.

I have a few books that I absolutely would not write in, however. Things like my early 20th Century copy of Newman's "Sermons on Subjects of the Day" or other "prized" books don't have writing in them.

I also buy a lot of used books and I refuse to buy a book in which somenoe has already written or highlighted. It throws me off.

Benoit Meyrieux said...

I love highlighting books and write notes on the side. I've been definitely convinced by Adler's "How to read a book", and since that day, I've enjoyed doing it (in yellow of course!)<
Actually, it took me some months, but now I do the same thing in my Bible, specially correcting bad translation and adding Scott Hahn's commentary (when will they published the final version Bible +commentary)< It takes me a long time, but like this I have my notes eveywhere I go.
I used to almost rewrite every book in my notebooks, now I gain time and have the pleasure to read the books over and over!

BTW I love your blog!

Mike Burgess said...

I couldn't write in, highlight, bend the spine of, or otherwise desecrate a book - any book - any more than I could record my own audio commentary over a book on tape or replace the audio track of my favourite CD with me singing karaoke. Drives my wife crazy. I get done with a cheap novel and give it to her and she has to ask if I've read it because it looks brand new. I know I'm like that old Phil Hartman sketch "the anal-retentive chef." Can't help it.

Colonel4God said...

I definitely write in books scholarly or otherwise. I definitely make notes in the margins about thoughts, corrections, craziness, and utter awe. For class reading, I'll make notes from the professor. That definitely helps when returning to those texts.

I've never thought of the standarization of the highlighter issue. I don't really have a problem using other color highlighters. I'll use yellow for my own thoughts and a different color for what the professor wants to "highlight" in class.

Christopher Heard said...

I write in my academic books, sometimes using a red pen or pencil, sometimes a lead pencil. I always gravitate back to red because it's easier for me to see on the page. I underline—using a ruler to make sure my lines are straight. I don't highlight.

Mr B said...

I find no purpose in marking up books. I find the act to be somewhat selfish and wasteful but in the process of learning unavoidably necessary for many of us. Ultimately all my books will belong to someone else and I have no desire to force another to read my reflections; I prefer the reader to have a clean experience without my highlighting influence. Penciled footnotes of a technical or corrective nature are excusable.

Andi said...

My books are all marked up with yellow highlighter (I find all other colors sloppy looking when they dry), black ink, and pencil. I find it impossible to remember anything otherwise. And I actually treasure the books which I mark up far more than the ones which look brand new. My favorite marked up book would most likely be Augustine's Confessions (which also happens to be the first book I ever marked up with great seriousness).