When I was a kid, I would never highlight sentences or write in the margins of my books. I figured that I should keep my possessions in good condition. But I distinctly remember when I began writing in my books — it was eleventh grade and I had just finished my final exams. I was looking for something to read over summer break, and I happened to stumble upon a copy of Don Quixote, replete with underlining and notes in the margins.
As I began reading these notes, I felt as if a counterpart was reading Don Quixote with me. We had both seemingly been teleported in time and space to a faraway land. It was quite the connection — even without knowing anything about this person, I felt a deep sense of appreciation for his or her scribbling. After I finished Don Quixote, I began to write in my books. It’s given me quite a lot:
- It keeps me awake. While this may not seem like a good reason to write in books, staying conscious makes a huge difference in my reading experience. If I nod off, then I won’t remember what I have read. Since reading is naturally quite passive, it’s easy to lose concentration. I need to actively do something to keep my mind aware of what it’s consuming, otherwise it will fall into the natural steady state of being asleep.
- Writing helps clarify ideas. By re-expressing the author’s words, I give myself a chance to slow down and think. I can read more quickly than I think, but it is hard to think more quickly than I write. The added time of physically putting pen to paper gives my brain time to process and digest what has been read. Moreover, rephrasing things is one of the key tenets of learning — true understanding only comes when you are able to articulate many parts of an idea and critique them.
- It helps me keep a mental roadmap of a book. By writing in a book, I give myself memory landmarks. Most people rely solely on the author’s predefined landscape in order to remember things, but I try to dictate for myself the things that I want to remember. By actively participating in creating my own memories, I direct my brain to remember passages and ideas that I find important. This makes it easier to recall these ideas quickly in conversation or when thinking deeply.
- It makes my books unique. Most people never personalize what they own. But books represent your ideas and thoughts and leaving them bare is the common, acceptable route of the uninspired mind. Really owning my books and putting my spirit into them — that makes me a bit more vibrant.
Creating this vitality is, of course, difficult. At first, I was always nervous about writing stupid or trivial things in the margins. I tried writing only “high-brow” things. Unfortunately, perfection is quite sterile. The odds and ends of the mind are what make us all human. Writing down everything you think of is perfectly fine, and often, better than writing down only the most intellectual ideas in your head.
As I gained more experience, I got better at letting loose. I began to really enjoy writing in my books, for I felt as if I really owned them. This sense of ownership and spontaneity — that is why I dirty my books.