Posted by: Ken Brown | July 10, 2009

Thou Shalt Not Mark A Library Book


Ben Myers recently posted a confession about stealing books that made me chuckle, but my own book sin 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 juggling a notebook or computer while I do so is simply impractical.

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.


  1. What then? Shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound? Certainly not!

    • LOL, what a perfect retort!

  2. I can’t bring myself to write in a book. Even the Bibles that I’ve purchased specifically for this purpose. Maybe some day…

    • Meanwhile for penance I erase other people’s marks from whatever books I check out. I now try to return them as close to clean as I can, even if they are not clear when I check them out.

      But if I own the book, I’ll still gladly leave my marks all over it (though always in pencil).

  3. you know, i actually think it would be cool if we all made our comments here and there in a book and then passed it back to a central place like a library. imagine a book 10, 20, 30 years later, with a large and wide community of comments scribbled side by side in the margins and inside covers. heh, even though i know some of them would steam me, i still kinda like the idea.

    • Interesting. It’d be prone to significant abuse, and I think it would have to be a special collection that you sought out intentionally (separate from what you would use for normal research or light reading), but it could be fascinating. I bet if it was framed correctly and presented in the right context, a lot of people would try and leave as thoughtful of comments as possible. Hmmm…

  4. […] at the same time. The trouble, of course, is that I cannot do this with library books. Well, I have done it with library books, but I’m older and wiser and hopefully a lot more considerate […]

Conversation is what makes blogging worthwhile. Leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: