It's OK to mark your own books

Tammy Marshall, "Novel Thoughts"

I’m a member of a few online reading groups where I share recommendations and the occasional comment about books with other reading aficionados.

One topic that seems to plant book lovers solidly in opposite camps is whether they mark in books or leave them in as pristine of condition as possible.

A few times, I’ve found the predilection for marking up the pages of a book to be as divisive as political party affiliation can be, and no matter what I say to defend my personal preference for writing in books, I have been on the receiving end of a few vitriols in which I’ve been verbally attacked in scathing, yet completely unnecessary, ways.

SO, I’LL just put it on the record right here that I write in my books, and I’ve done that for years and years. No amount of scolding will ever get me to stop, so if you happen to be one of the book lovers who are cringing right now, please don’t send me a nasty email explaining why I shouldn’t write in the books.

I only write in books that I own; I would never think to defile a book I’ve borrowed from the library or from anyone else.

I underline passages, I put little asterisks next to lines I like, and I’ve even been known to dogear the occasional page. Did I just hear you gasp?

I repeat — I own the books that I mark up. They are my personal possessions, and just as I use my other possessions in the way I see fit to use them, I also use my books in the way I see fit.

For me, putting a small star next to a beautiful sentence is how I express my love and appreciation for the artistry of the words the author strung together.

People argue that I should keep a diary of special lines instead of underlining them within the books. In fact, I do keep such a diary; however, I also prefer to be able to see the lines within the context of the larger passages in which they dwell, so I mark them within the books as well.

ALSO, AS a writer, sometimes I will make a note of an “aha” moment where I spot a special literary trick beautifully executed by the book’s author. Or I will circle a new word, look up its meaning and try to make it part of my own lexicon.

I also tend to make brief notes of important events inside the back cover of paperbacks, so if I need to come back to the book, I can quickly remind myself of the things that mattered in the story.

I own many books, both new and used. When I buy a secondhand book, I’m always happy to see it marked up, and I really enjoy pondering over the sentences that the previous reader chose to highlight. Those markings are a connection from one reader to another. If my books pass into other readers’ hands at some point, I hope they, too, will appreciate and feel the love I had for the passages I read.

Or perhaps they’ll simply grumble that I ruined the books with my markings.

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This month’s reading selection is Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Contact Marshall at


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