Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mark, Read and Inwardly Digest

   by Alice Valdal

  Do you write in your books?  I don't mean keeping a journal or writing your first draft long-hand.  I mean, do you take a pen or a highlighter and mark up your current reading material?  Do you commend books for their marginalia or do you condemn the miscreant who dared to mar a published work?
   When I was in high school, we had to purchase our textbooks and I always tried to buy a used copy from a good student a year or so ahead of me. That person had usually marked the important passages, and if I was lucky, had even made a few notes in the margin -- saving me the trouble of doing some of my own homework.

I'm a great fan of used music. Not only do I get the notes on the page, I often come across markings from a previous singer, alerting me to troublesome spots or giving me a hint as to how to handle a difficult phrase.  I used to be reticent about making marks in a music score but an accomplished conductor showed me his copy, with lines and arrows and squiggles all over the place.  I decided that, if someone of his ability needed hints along the way, I had free rein to write in my personal hints everywhere.

   I once heard a preacher say he enjoyed browsing in used book stores and sometimes bought a volume because of the marginalia. As he described the experience, not only did he get to have a conversation with the author of the book, he also had a conversation with the previous owner.

     I would suggest that most of us are happy enough to mark up our school books (some pedants even like to "correct" the text in library books) or to make notes on a score or scribble all over a manuscript, but when it comes to personal reading, we put the pens away.  Yet one of the best ways to learn the craft of writing is to read the works of good writers.  Why not take highlighters in different colours to illumine the turning points in the story or to trace the hero's character arc?  

     And what about our Bibles? Do we mark them up with lines and arrows to point toward verses of particular moment or do we put our pens away, not wishing to mar the holy text. And yet, aren't our Bibles textbooks too? Instead of teaching us physics or English, they provide instruction for living. Surely the study of such a text warrants the odd asterisk or question mark, not to mention the underlining of a favourite passage.  In my Bible Study class, the minister has resorted to handing out the relevant text on a sheet of paper just to encourage us to make notes and draw connecting lines and even add a few exclamation points. Somehow, it seems acceptable to mark up a photocopy, but not the real Book.  

   I understand the impulse to keep a Bible pristine, but, having inherited my mother's Bible and a New Testament that belonged to my dad, I regret that they did not let loose with a pen or pencil now and again.  I have searched the pages of these two texts for hints of what my parents valued, what words touched their hearts, what psalms brought comfort. In vain have I sought an underlined passage or a note in the margin. I know both of these books were well-read and whole sections committed to memory, but not a hint of the previous owner is visible on the pages, and I wish it were.

    I don't advocate defacing the Bible, or any other book for that matter, but I think perhaps a mark, in pencil, to denote a favourite psalm or to highlight a pivotal passage might be in order, a record of our conversation with the author. After all, my Bible is not a museum piece, it's an instruction manual. Anyone can tell my favourite recipes by the splatters in my cook book. Shouldn't my Bible bear some trace of use?

  So, what is your story?  Are you a scribbler or a neatnik?  Are there splatters in your Bible?  Are there dog-earred pages on your keeper shelf?  Will your inheritors meet you between the pages of your favourite reading?

To check out Alice's scribblings, visit her website at alicevaldal.com


  1. There are only certain books that I will write in--one is my Bible, and the others are my favorite novels. In my Bible, it's often a 2-way conversation with God in written form. I asked Him questions, and find His answers. I often like to write out prayers and put down the answers when I get them. It encourages my faith. As for writing in my favorite books, I highlight areas that I can learn from.

  2. I'm a neatnik, but today, Alice you've encouraged me and given me permission to highlight in my Bible those important scriptures and how God is teaching me so that I may teach my son. I hadn't thought about it this way before. I've got hundreds of journals with verses written in them and my comments on them, but this could be a more interesting and pointed way of showing my son who I really am. Thanks.

  3. Glad the post got you thinking, Laura. I'm sure your son will appreciate seeing the notes in your Bible.

  4. I have used a highlighter in my bible but not in books. Although at school it was cool to get a book from the year earlier with answers already in books like the shorthand book. but normally I didn't write in them (maybe a little in the maths) but not others. And not novels but then Im not a writer. During the study I am doing one lecture would tell use to underline areas but it was not something I felt good doing. I have been guilty using dogs ears in books but that was when I was much younger and not so wiser. Now I rarely do this unless its a magazine or a cookbook or craft but not novels.

  5. My bible is dated.It is covered in dates which then refer back to my myriad dated prayer journals and I can then look up that date and remember exactly what was happening and how God answered or encouraged me with that verse or challenged me as the case may be. Otherwise I have a tendency to forget too soon God's answers. It is a way of encouraging faith. I also write or underline in non fiction books I re-read. Can't say I've ever done it in novels, perhaps because I rarely read novels more than once.

  6. When I have to replace a worn-out Bible, I spend hours transferring all my marginalia to the new one. The one thing I have asked my 87-year-old father for when he dies is the Bible he used when he was in bed with TB as a young man. The notes are unreadably small, but they fill every space and shout to me that he valued the Word of God. He never went to seminary, but even today he disciples 6 or 8 men a week.