Monday, February 06, 2012

The Write Habit

Hello, my name is Phyllis, and I have an uncontrollable urge to deface books.  Let me explain.  My whole life I have taken great care of my books.  I don’t leave them in the rain, press Cheezie crumbs between the pages, or slop tea on jacket covers.  And I never read in the bathtub.  Seeing a corner turned down on a page is like hearing fingernails across a chalkboard.  And it drives me insane when a book is left spread open face down on a table.  I always use a bookmark. 

But−and here is where the confession lies−every time I read a phrase or sentence that touches my soul, I want to circle it, highlight it, or put a star in the margin.  I know this admission sounds incredible but I fought the compulsion for a long time. 

One day, engrossed in an excellent story, I re-read a particularly eloquent phrase several times.  Later, I had the rare opportunity to speak to the author.  I told her how much I loved her book, and how that one descriptive phrase captured me early in the reading.  Which one, she asked with unrestrained interest.  (Authors love knowing exactly what words touch a reader.)  I faltered.  It was...well, it was when you described...near the front of the book...well, anyway, as soon as I read that, I knew I was going to love your book.  I was embarrassed.  I could not remember the exact phrasing.  Senior moment?  Perhaps.  At home, I checked the book.  No, I could not find the right page. 

Some authors express situations in a story so well that the reader is no longer reading, but actually living the moment.  I love it when that happens.  There are certain passages I read repeatedly for the sheer appreciation of the writing. 

Then it happened again.  I was reading a segment in a book that made me feel like shouting YES!  I FEEL THE SAME WAY!  My jaw tensed.  Unable to resist, I leaped to my feet and grabbed a highlighter.  I stroked through the words of genius.  I closed the book.  I flipped it open again and leafed through the pages.  There it was.  I re-read the words for immediate gratification.  Still, I felt bad altering the bound publication.

If you follow my blog, you know I have an ereader.  It will never replace the real thing but I have consumed several books so far using this convenient little gadget.  Let me quickly add that it is not the same reading experience unless you are just in it for the story.  The good news is that I can still highlight and make notes in the margins. 

If my librarian is reading this blog, do not revoke my library card.  I only write in the books that excite or inspire me.  When a loaner turns out to be a keeper, I buy my own copy. 

I received a book from a writer friend for my birthday this year−actually last year−well, just a few weeks ago.  It was a writer’s book and my friend confessed that she had not read the book herself but it looked interesting.  I offered to loan it to her after I read it.

Here’s the problem.  That night, comfy cozy beneath the bedcovers, I reached for my new book.  I was only into the book a few pages when I wanted to shout, AHA!  EXACTLY THE WAY I FEEL!  I let the moment pass.  A few pages later, I was nodding my head.  There were some great writing techniques along with other words of wisdom.  I told myself that the great advice would always stay with me.  Of course, I knew it wouldn’t.  I thought how handy it would be to just flip the book open and easily find the reference points. 

A gnawing restless feeling grew in the pit of my stomach.  I was very uncomfortable.  I forced myself to continue turning the pages, reading line after line.  My fingers fluttered.  I could not control the urge.  It was becoming a habit.  A bad habit?  You be the judge.

In the back of my mind was the thought that my friend would be reading this book when I finished.  What would she think of the brightly hued slashes on the pages of her gift?  I resisted−but for only another six pages.  I threw back the covers, raced down the hall and into the office.  Snatching a vivid blue highlighter from the caddy, I returned to bed.  I reached for the book.  In broad dramatic strokes, I marked through phrases, underlined sentences, and drew pictures and question marks in the margins.  I could have been tidier but I was in a rather relaxed position, and I was not wearing my reading glasses.

Part of me feels bad.  It is my book, though.  It is a workbook.  It is a reference book for me.  One of those motivational writer things.  And so, when I finish reading it, I will hand it to her, without excuse or apology. 

Maybe she will be pleased to see that I have made this book irretrievably mine.  On the other hand, perhaps she has a secret habit too.  Could her books possibly have personal musings and comments written in bright hues along the margins?  Maybe not, but I think she will understand.  She will take the book from my outstretched hand.  She will smile; pleased that I found the book enlightening and inspirational.  And then, before she tucks the book in her bag, she will idly flip through the pages.  She will notice but not comment on the brilliant blue highlights. 

It is a habit−the write habit!


  1. Phyllis, I know exactly how you feel! For years I couldn't make myself mark up a new book. But then came the time, as it did with you, when I just had to mark those passages, because, like you, I could never find them again. It's amazing how something just seems to disappear right off the page. (I started with pencil, but finally graduated to highlighters and pens.)

    On the other hand, sometimes on reading a book for the second (or third or...) time I come across something I could swear wasn't there the first time I read it. And so the marking up of a book, for the right purposes, is the "write habit".

    1. Ahhhh, a kindred spirit. Thanks Diane. I feel much better. Hope you will stop by again. I can always use an ally.

  2. To highlight or not to highlight, that is the question..Did I "borrow" part of that sentence? I try hard at times to kill that urge. It can certainly be overpowering at times but who cares..At my age I can't seem to rely on my memory anymore and highlighters come in such pretty colors now..You have certainly helped me deal with my guilt of defacing books with this wonderfully written article.

    1. It's the memory thing for sure with me. And, of course, you are right about the colours. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Oh boy. I underline and highlight, turn down pages (I lose bookmarks) bend the binding back and use them as coasters.I'm so rough with books I take the paper cover off of hard covers and put them back on when I'm done. They would be in tatters otherwise.

  4. Hi Lynn, I was okay until I read 'bend the binding back'. Ouch! But don't worry about it. Maybe someday you will have one of my books for a coaster and when it gets truly ratty looking, you will go out and buy another! Thanks for visiting my site.