Creative Commons License

Thou Shalt Not Mark a Library Book

Saturday, July 11, 2009 at 02:32 AM EDT

Ben Myers recently posted a confession about stealing books that made me chuckle, but my own book vice is of a different sort. I’ve never stolen a book, but I’ve marked up more than a few library copies in my day. When reading my own books I love to underline memorable phrases, mark key sections, and jot down my thoughts in the margins; I’ve even written full paragraphs on the endpages from time to time. I do this, in part, as an aid to memory, but mainly because I prefer to read laid back in a comfortable chair and cannot stand juggling a notebook or computer while I do it.

So I mark up my books, especially those I’m using for research, which poses a problem when I can’t afford to buy the book I need. At some point when I was an undergraduate I realized that I didn’t have time to meet a particular paper deadline if I went to the trouble of taking legitimate notes on my own paper. I can’t recall if I was nervous the first time I marked a library book, but it wasn’t long before I marked nearly everything I checked out. Of course, I was sure to only make small pencil marks in the margins and always usually frequently tried to erase them later, but I was only partially successful. Pencil isn’t nearly as impermanent as advertised, and who has the time to search every page for marks when a book is already overdue? Besides, once I’d had my taste of illicit freedom, it was no use going back.

The worst of it, though, was the hypocrisy. Our school library has been pretty lax about such things (I’ve never been fined for marking a book), and probably a quarter of all the volumes in their stacks have been marked by someone, sometimes rather extensively. On the one hand, this only justified me in my vice–you should see the wild abandon with which I added my own comments to such unlucky volumes. But on the other hand, it annoyed me beyond bearing that so many idiots put marks in all the wrong places! Surely only a fool would underline that triviality when the key point is clearly here! What were they thinking when they wrote that? How hard is it to draw a straight line–were you reading in a Tilt-o-Whirl?

In time I slowly, ever so slowly, came to admit that my own marks might be equally frustrating to others. Still, it wasn’t until I started ordering inter-library loans that I finally broke myself of the habit, as each came with a information sheet threatening death or dismemberment (or maybe just a hefty fine) if a volume was returned late or damaged. Since then I’ve sought other means of tracking the important points in my library books, the most recent of which is sticky notes, as you can see from the rather egregious example above. But it’s just not the same. Nothing satisfies so much as a biting wisecrack left in the margins–at least until I read the book again, and wonder what imbecile left that laughably ignorant remark.