sean cassidy : Write in the Margins

in: writing

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Billy Collins - Marginalia

In my senior year of high school, my English teacher finally convinced us to write in our books. Most of us were avid readers and kept our books safe from graffiti and egg salad stains. But we were wrong not to take notes in them. We were missing out on the most important aspect of reading: how a book changes you.

Novels are not stodgy monologues. Non-fiction is meant to widen your mind. Poetry should touch you at a deeper level. They all exist in context, where the author's thoughts mix with your own to create something new - a thought, a memory, a realization. When you read a book, you bring your cumulative life experience together with the author’s words. Writing in the margins captures this forever. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so why pretend like you can’t be a part of it?

While some famous marginalia is funny or witty or groundbreaking, I don’t expect mine to be read by anyone but me. They’re reminders of how I felt or viewed a passage or phrase. Looking through an old book with notes helps me understand who I used to be, and who I am now. My notes in my copy of 1984, written when I was a teenager, sometimes make me cringe, but other times there are glimpses of opinions I still hold, thoughts I still believe. The books I read are a part of me, and the notes in the margins help me to not forget.

Sometimes the notes are just underlines or brackets to mark something for later. If a page is particularly important, I'll stick a book tab on it so I can get to it later. Other times, it’s a short comment or observation. If I have a long thought, I’ll put it in Evernote. Each book gets its own note in Evernote where I can take detailed notes, reminders to read other books. I used to use a commonplace book but I prefer keeping the notes digitally so I can search them. For academic papers I do the same, but attach the paper to the note so I can search that too. A collaborative web site where people could share notes and highlights for academic papers is something that I hope someone will build soon.

When I tell people that I write in my books, they are horrified that I would tarnish them. If you collect rare books, then don’t write in them. But I buy the pulpiest copies of books I can find: the more used and worn the copy, the better. I write in them, and occasionally they’re already written in, which is a treat. I hope that ebooks will help people get past their philistine preconceptions of what is proper to do in a book. The public highlighting feature for ebooks is a great way to feel like you’re part of a community. Television and movies have plenty of chatter about them on the Internet, but books are often read by too few people to connect. Public highlighting is the marginalia of today.

Write in the margins. Be a part of what you read. Remember who you were so you can know who you are.

Sean is the CTO and co-founder at DefenseStorm, a cloud cybersecurity startup.

Follow @sean_a_cassidy