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Thursday, August 11, 2005


As a former member of the British Council Library in Calcutta, one of the things that caused much grief was books in which people had scribbled notes and comments.

These would typically take the form of underlined words and phrases with their meanings pencilled in the margins. In works of fiction, this blight would recede after the first few chapters, leading one to conclude that the hapless reader had simply given up the effort of ploughing through impenetrable prose. On other occasions, there would be an argumentative “No!” or “You’re wrong!” in block letters next to a passage that had caused annoyance. Here, the extent of displeasure would be in direct proportion to the number of exclamation marks employed.

Then, of course, there were the putative literary critics, a breed not known for being easily impressed, who would scrawl on the last page comments such as “A pleasant read, but not as good as _____" or simply a terse "Rubbish!". One longed to pick up a book where such marginalia actually contributed to the experience of reading – either though a sarcastic aside or a sharp insight – but one never came across any, more’s the pity.

Years later, one found that the books available from the Flora Fountain footpaths in Mumbai (no longer present, alas) weren’t immune to this malady. Worse, a few such books were scarred by indelible ballpoint pen markings, sometimes inscribed with such vengeance that their impression was clearly visible even on the other side of the page. (One recalls picking up a Corgi paperback of Philip Roth’s My Life As A Man and then putting it down in horror after detecting such tattooed atrocities within.)

One’s own attitude towards the books one possesses is to not try and deface them in any manner possible – even to the extent of reading paperbacks with care so as not to crack or crease their spines. (Damnably difficult, if not downright impossible, when it comes to those Faber paperbacks of collected editions of poetry.) As for actually writing in them – good heavens, no. Notes, comments, jottings can as well be written on a separate pad, should the urge arise.

One has been informed that this attitude is, well, obsessive, to put it politely. But….to take a book, to sniff it, to run one’s fingers over the texture of the paper, to settle down to read it – and then to scribble in it? No, no. One prefers one’s idols unsullied.

N.B. Just occurred to one that Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris probably contains an essay on the joys, or otherwise, of writing in books. One will have to look it up – if only one can locate it in the jumble of shelves. But that's another post.

Update: Karthik directs one to Pradeep Sebastian's far more erudite and enlightening piece on the same subject, in a previous issue of The Hindu Literary Review. Worth reading.


  • By Anonymous Karthik, at 6:20 PM  

  • Just building some of the comments in Pradeep Sebastian's article - I think there's an important difference between scribbling in your own books and scribbling in library books:

    a) Scribbling in library books is just plain discourteous. I mean, look, you got the book in a certain condition - the least you can do is give it back the same way so that other people can have the same experience that you had. If you owned the book you'd be perfectly within your rights to scribble across it in lipstick for all I care, but if it's community property (which library books are) you simply have no right, even if you think your random jottings somehow 'enhance' the book.

    b) I think people scribble in their own books from very different motives - people scribble in books they own because they want to be able to revisit the thoughts / ideas they had when they read it the first time. People who scribble in library books do it, in my opinion just to get attention. It's plain vandalism. So, for instance, I've been through my share of Philip Roths where all his hilariously funny 'naughty' bits will be accompanied by cheap drawings or random underlining. And that sort of stuff really irritates me.

    Overall, I would have to say that my experience with marginalia has been fairly mixed. There are at least a few books I've bought second hand (including some from Fountain) that have turned out to have fairly intelligent and insightful comments - notes about characters, literary motifs, comparisons to other characters in other books (even, once or twice, a Shakespeare reference or two). This has certainly made these books more precious to me. On the other hand, the vast majority of marginalia I've found (especially in library books) seems like the work of some deranged juvenile, put there expressly to annoy me.

    I personally don't understand how people can write in books - it seems so presumptuous, such an act of desecration. The most I've ever done is mark interesting passages in a few of my philosophy texts by putting a tiny dot with light pencil in the margins. And even that I regret now.

    By Blogger Falstaff, at 12:16 AM  

  • Sometimes, cryptic scribblings are fun to read.

    I once bought an anthology of poetry from a public library sale. Nearly every third poem had this scribbled on the side: "RFK, 1968".

    I wonder, was Sirhan Sirhan fond of poetry?


    By Blogger km, at 1:02 AM  

  • As always, Karthik beats me to it. I loved the Pradeep Sebastian piece, and was in the process of figuring out where I'd read it, when I noticed that Karthik's pulled it up:)

    I have mixed feelings about writing on books. At the Madras British Council, I've come across some great comments, particularly in Wodehouse - clearly made by hard core fans, with references to other books that feature the same characters, or examples of a character having been wittier elsewhere... In a copy of 'Stranger in a Strange Land' borrowed from the USIS Library, I read the best commentry I've ever read on that book. It ran into a page & a half - & was written on the empty sheets at the end of the book.

    What really irritates me is underlining - the passages or lines underlined probably hold some meaning for the person who did the dastardly act. I end up spending too much time wondering why someone felt this particular line or dialogue was so important... and just get distracted. People who write at least take the trouble to make a point! Those who underline are just plain lazy!

    By Blogger DoZ, at 5:02 AM  

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