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Writing in books. Photo by the author

One of my favorite students, set to graduate summa cum laude this month, came to my office last week with a handful of books. She told me she had bought some for her literature classes and others to feed what I have come to know as her effervescent intellect. She said she was divesting of most of her possessions to prepare for a year of backpacking around Asia before strapping into graduate school and asked if I wanted a few of the books to add to my library. “But,” she said apologetically, “they aren’t perfect.” Her voice dropped into the quiet register of shame. “I wrote in them.”

After she left my office I looked inside the books. Passages glowed with a radioactive yellow under the adornment of a highlighter. Pages were dog-eared and pizza-stained. The margins were pop-up festivals. In them I read snippets of quotes, questions addressed to the writers, musings—all in her handwriting, an intimacy of its own. The books she gave me were not only stories well written but the brain droppings of an engaged mind that had transformed the novels into something alive, something unlocked from the static place holding of text printed onto paper. Her books bristled with ongoingness. She had transformed the books into living things.

A few months before receiving those books, I attended a teaching conference. One of the speakers was Robin DeRosa, the director of Interdisciplinary Studies at Plymouth State University. In her animated talk, she called margins contested spaces and relayed her thoughts about writing in books.

“I like the idea of a text’s margins being a space to amplify the marginal subtext, make visible the marginalized experience, or subvert the dominant discourse with critique. And I like that the act of annotating is an empowering one, one that ascribes ownership over the text through the democratic act of reading.”

Her words were liberating. I write in my books and scrawl in those slender white streams of margins that flank the text. I annotate, and I ruminate. Writing in books hints of something forbidden, a private and thrilling act of rebellion.

Like most of you, I imagine, I grew up with the idea that writing in a book—any book except a diary or a guest registry—was verboten. In my stern Catholic school, books were presented to us as sacred objects, containers of Knowledge that we were to behold and safeguard. I assumed writing in a book was a mortal sin. We were never to smudge them, read with dirty fingers or turn down the corner of a page to mark our place. If a book spurred a question or introduced an unknown word, it was never acceptable to notate in the margins. Textbooks on annual loan to us in high school were given thorough health examinations upon their return. If there were marks, we were punished. We were shamed.

I carried these ideas with me for years. I held onto the notion of the book as an object of authority, something to divest its text but never to be brought into the ongoingness of my life and of my learning. It wasn’t until I was liberated into buying my own books that I began to write in them, to doodle. Some I annotate with data points—the captain’s log of my reading. In others I joust with the ideas presented. In most my response to the text curls my thoughts into new formations which then alight onto language. That language goes into the book. Into the margins. Onto the edges of the printed pages.

My books are integral to the life I live. If the pages are ruffled, the book has been ingested during a bath. If there are the circular brown tattoos of coffee mugs, I’ve been reading in the morning. Crumbs wedge into the center of the pages, attesting to reading during meals. Creases show the way stations of my attention span. My comments and questions are a record of my thinking.

The student who gave me the books wrote an email the next day, saying she hoped I was not offended by their condition. I wrote her back immediately and assured her there were two gifts she had given me: The gift of the stories told by the novel and the deeper gift of the treasure map she had created there of a mind alive.

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Originally a flatlander, Laura Kelly is a journalism professor who teaches writing and storytelling at the American University in Bulgaria. She lives in Flagstaff during the summer months and calls the city one of her homes. She uses Mary Oliver’s words as her manifesto: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

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