Writing in the margins

A Life in Hand

Hannah Hinchman’s A Life in Hand is a well-marked book that inspired me to start keeping illustrated journals.

It was the university years that set me on the path of writing in the margins of books and highlighting passages. At the time, it was a matter of expediency. Taking notes would have required hours of writing. Instead, I prepared for exams by reading highlighted sections and margin notes.

The habit continued into my mid-forties. Writing in books made them mine. A pristine book was uncharted land. Once I had marked up a book, I could re-visit it like a beloved friend.

I didn’t write in every book, only those whose authors snatched the thoughts out of my mind and committed them to paper in a way that made my mind sing. Or books that held my hand when I was crossing shark-filled waters and needed courage. I wrote in the books that were friends I wanted in my life forever.

I took a hiatus while I lived with someone who loved books so much he saw my happy scribbling and marking as almost a physical assault. I’m sorry I did that now because the books I bought during those years never became intimates.

On the bright side, I was able to pass them on to friends during my many episodes of moving and downsizing. The break from scribbling also made me more choosy. Since I prefer to live with less Stuff these days, I mark only an occasional book, one I know I will not be able to part with.

One of those is Patti Digh’s Life Is a Verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful, and Live Intentionally. Patti’s book is a treat for eyes and heart, full of compelling stories and gorgeous art. It’s like an extended conversation with a best friend.

I knew I had found a book I would joyously mark up, and keep, when I read her introduction:

“My hope is that you will engage with this book as you engage with life. When I meet you in Des Moines or Ojai or Copenhagen or Stellenbosch, my greatest wish is that you’ll show me your dog-eared copy, pages turned down, furious scribblings in the margins to show agreement, disagreement, engagement, those mental tremors you’re feeling. Inhabit this book. Put something of yourself into the blank spaces by way of understanding.”

I’m doing exactly that, and the book—along with a handful of other never-to-part-with tomes—has become a friend who makes me laugh, nod vigorously, ponder, and empathize.

Life Is a Verb

One of many margin notes in one of my newest best-friend books, Life Is a Verb

So go ahead. Write in the margins. Gorge on your beloved books. Have a dialogue with them. Unless you pass them on, they’ll hold your secrets, your yearnings, your excitement.

Think of them as a legacy. Some day an heir, or perhaps a real, live friend, will know your heart because you wrote in the margins.

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3 comments for “Writing in the margins

  1. Anne
    June 23, 2010 at 11:08 am

    What a lovely post… I rarely write in my books anymore (particularly since I tend to read less these days and try to use the library rather than acumulate more books) but I just may start again!

  2. June 23, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    I’m mostly a library user so when I do buy a book it’s either a gift (often) or one that holds the promise of becoming a good friend.

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