Marginalia. Or, You Know, Doodling.

There are some things that you are just supposed to know as a person who reads books. Also, probably, as a parent.

1) Don't destroy books.

2) Don't write on books.

3) Don't draw on books.

I do know how things are supposed to be. I know what's right. But. I get a little caught up in "Whose book is it really?" For instance, if a child is given a copy of Five Little Ducks, and chooses to color in the ducks so they are all black, is this wrong?

This, if you can't tell, is one of the areas where too much thinking turns me into a pretty crappy parent. It should be so easy! I should just say, "Books aren't for drawing in," with a kind yet grave smile (think Ma from Little House in the Big Woods) and the child would LEARN.

Instead, I said, "Books aren't for drawing in," and they she said (this is all long ago, sort of) "But they look much better this way," and I think, "Hmm. Not exactly, but I see what she's getting at," and said, "But it's a book for other people to read," and she said, "But it's my book," and I said, "Well, just because someone gives you something and says it's yours doesn't really mean it's yours," and then we both look confused and get distracted by something.

All of which is to say that we have ended with many, many books that have been drawn in (Betsy-Tacy in particular are very decorated—line drawings seem to cry out for the crayon), and other books…written in.

Here's how I am trying to feel OK about this. I am going to call these notes marginalia. Doesn't that sound reassuringly academic? Even gifted? Take a look.


See? Sure, it's a beautiful hardcover edition of D'Aulaires Greek Myths. But look at that questing mind!


Enthusiasm! The key to learning, no doubt.

And then there's this one, which Chestnut recently mentioned to me. As the recipient of all the hand-me-down books, she has borne the brunt of the, er, marginalia the most. And a lot of the time it annoys her. But with this next one, she said, "You know, Mommy, she really has a point."


And, yeah, I see it. He was afraid of nothing, yet feared her fits. OK, that's a contradiction, I'll accept it.

Have I created a monster? Or is this just another awesome thing that happened by mistake that I should remember to grateful for? I am thinking the latter.

Also: she's not the only person who does this, right? RIGHT? I would appreciate lots of encouraging "Well, my child always wrote in his books and now he has cured cancer!" etc.

9 thoughts on “Marginalia. Or, You Know, Doodling.

  1. My old boyfriend and first husband (I know! I know!) wrote reams of marginalia in tiny, tiny script in many, many books of poetry that I still own. And I love them because of that. I truly, truly love them.


  2. Pre-Kindle me used to enjoy writing in the books I brought when traveling. Not marginalia of the “how true!” variety, but overheard dialogue, addresses, travel tips…. It’d tie the place to the book for me and make rereading extra enjoyable. True, they were all paperbacks, since I was lugging 5 or 6 books along for a week’s trip, but that doesn’t mean I should have been writing in them. Yet this is something I miss now that I just bring my Kindle.


  3. I had to get over this myself. I would hear myself saying “no, we don’t write in books, we take care of our books.” And then I’d think–but why? I mean, I’m against wanton destruction and waste, but books are as mass-produced as anything else out there. It’s not the end of the world if a book gets crayon in it. And sometimes it’s amusing to go through old favorites–or hand-me-downs from parents/aunts/uncles–and see the markings.
    And yes, I’m a librarian.


  4. I never let my kids write in the books. But ME? I always write in my books. How is that for a double standard? I rarely write in novels (but I still do it occasionally), mostly just educational books…then let the annotation begin!


  5. I am a 67 year old reader and public librarian. Obviously your child has to learn the distinction between library books and her own books. I didn’t let my toddlers use books as a paper substitute.
    But the examples you give seem more than acceptable, even charming. Venerating books as sacred objects detracts from reading.


  6. And shouldn’t the interaction with the text that the annotations evidence help the young ladies do better on standardized tests? Isn’t that all that matters, anyway?
    I kid, of course. Carry on, annotators! You are readying yourself for college.


  7. I have written in many, MANY books in my life as a student. It’s the way I have always learned. Once I got to college and had to buy my own books, all bets were off. As a grad student, there are a few books I have reread so much I had to buy new copies. I sometimes keep the old copy, though, because it’s interesting to look back and see the different notes written in pencil and different color pens, the varying colors of highlighter, that I have used over the years. It kind of documents my changing relationship with certain texts. I say as long as it’s not a library book or someone else’s book, you should get to do what you want with it.


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