THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

So... Are You Going to Write in That New Book?

I hope your every holiday wish came true as far as the books you wanted. And let's assume in a nostalgic kind of way that at least some of those books were printed on paper and bound between covers.

Are you going to write in them?

I've found few questions as polarizing for readers as whether they write in the hardcover books they own.

Les Standiford, teacher, author and booklover, wouldn't dream of writing in his books. "I won't underline or even dog-ear pages. The books have become important to me as artifacts."

Tom Morris, philosopher, author and booklover, wouldn't dream of not writing in his. "I underline and write and dog-ear like crazy. A book should never be just read; it should be used."

Les Standiford is among what I call the Preservationists. They see books as cherished objects that eventually will be passed on to others. You shouldn't contaminate them with your thoughts of the moment.

Tom Morris belongs to the group I call Footprint Leavers. For them, books are like food to be heartily enjoyed, and if need be, consumed in the interest of a healthy diet. Writing in the margins and underlining are healthy interactions and make the book more valuable to them, which is their concern. There are plenty of unmarked books to go to posterity, they say; this one book will give its all to them.

Should your history be in your books?

Preservationists scoff at this. They may well take notes from a book, which they claim is more meaningful than merely underlining.

"Underlining is a fool's way of absorbing knowledge," says one accomplished Preservationist. Several others say that underlining can actually become a disservice to the underliner when, years later, he returns to the book and finds it difficult to read passages not underlined, or is forced to see the book the same way she did years ago, instead of with more mature eyes.

Footprint Leavers counter that if they wish to read a pristine copy, they can almost always buy another copy, get one from the library, or read one on their electronic reader. And they like seeing how they previously viewed the book. It gives them insights into their viewpoints at an earlier age, and all-important self knowledge.

Food for thoughts

Alexandra's much-annotated GiftsAlexandra Stoddard, the author of a wealth of books on design and meaning-filled living, is a devoted Footprint Leaver. She showed me her much-loved copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gifts from the Sea. It was laden with colorful underlines, highlights and various triangles and rectangles in the margin.

Alexandra could point to her original marks, when she first read the book as a girl, and then subsequent readings as the years went by and she matured. The book had transformed into a diary of sorts, imbued with her own visible testimony to the meanings she extracted over the years. "Books are food for me," she says.

Will Provine, a historian of science and collector of rare books, has examined the libraries of many scientists, including Nobel Prize winners. He says that most scientists didn't write in their books, yet Charles Darwin almost always did so.

"A book is generally worth more if written in by an important person," Will says. Darwin's comments are considered of enormous historical significance--food for scientific thought.

I am a Footprint Leaver myself, but my inquiries suggest there are far more Preservationists. Perhaps the world is better for this, since future readers will have more pristine books to inherit. On the other hand, with the explosive growth of electronic reading, will this be our last chance as readers to make our mark?

What say you, dear HuffPo reader--are you a Footprint Leaver or a Preservationist? I'd love to know your reasons, either way.