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On Being Too Kind To Books

by Jeff Phelps on January 24th, 2009

I was always taught to be kind to books and to treat them with respect. A bit like elderly relatives. Don’t fold the spine back, you’ll break it, don’t draw moustaches on the pictures of Noddy. Never write in the margins.

But isn’t there something wonderfully subversive about defacing books? You can make your own wise observations then return them to the charity shop. Something profound, not too obscene. It’s good to show your ignorance here. Try jotting ‘over the top’ with exclamation marks in the middle of Hamlet, or ‘pathetic fallacy’ almost anywhere. Poems are easy to notate with comments such as ‘imagery!’ or ‘why not iambic pentameter?’ But if you want really profound marginalia there’s nothing better than the cryptic shopping list. ‘Jam’ for instance or ‘quail eggs’ will keep readers guessing for years.

That’s why I’ve taken to buying paperbacks from Oxfam. I can make my own notes. What works, what doesn’t. Is it a good story? How did she do that? Why?

Deep in pencil markings the novel almost looks more loved. And there’s nobody looking over my shoulder asking me what I think I’m doing.

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