Ian McMillan: Why it’s ok to scribble in books

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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I used to see a man years ago at home matches at Oakwell buying two copies of that week’s programme; he’d stuff one into his pocket and slip the other one into a clear plastic wallet which he placed carefully into a carrier bag.

He was a collector, a completist, and, although I have a lot of sympathy for that approach with things like football programmes, I believe that if you love a piece of writing you shouldn’t treat it gently. You shouldn’t place it in a literal or metaphorical carrier bag. I imagined the man’s house, the special Programme Room, the clear plastic wallets shining in the afternoon sun in their clear plastic wallet-binders. Then I pictured the books I’m reading at the moment, bent and twisted, mauled and left for dead on the floor.

I mentioned my paragraph-graffiti habit to a friend and she said that she did it too, but she made sure she rubbed the notes out later.

You see, I think that reading a book isn’t a one-way street. As a reader, I complete the book. I picture the characters, I sometimes spout the dialogue aloud, I examine each sentence, each line of poetry, to see how the language works, to imagine how I might have written it if I’d have been clever enough. Without me, as a reader, the book is simply a slab on a table, merely a mash-up of words, paper, card and ink. In the end, the printed words are simply the bus that the writing is sitting in; the real work of reading goes on in the head. The book is the river and the reader is the salmon. Or summat like that.

And what’s more (sensitive readers should look away now) I fold the pages over. I write on the books. I scribble words and sentences in the margins. I underline good ideas. I underline bad ideas. I would have underlined that phrase earlier about the book and the river and the reader and the salmon. I draw long snaking arrows across the page connecting one word to another.

I know that some people think this is like scrawling a moustache on the Mona Lisa or putting advertising hoardings on the pyramids but to me this is real reading, thoughtful reading, and responsible reading, although I must admit this is the first time I’ve come out about it in public. I mentioned my paragraph-graffiti habit to a friend and she said that she did it too, but she made sure she rubbed the notes out later. It was my turn to look shocked: “You use a pencil?” I asked. She nodded and explained that she wrote very faintly on the book and rubbed out the writing almost as soon as she’d written it.

At this point I must have sounded as loud as Brian Blessed trumpeting an anecdote in a lift. “A pencil? Never! Always use a pen! It makes the thinking clearer!” My dream is that one day I’ll see somebody on a train reading one of my books and writing in it, which would prove to me that they’re totally engaged with it. I’ve not seen anybody doing yet, but when I do I’ll go across and shake their inky hands!