If a new book is a monologue, a used book is a conversation. Underline a passage or write a note in the margin and you have left a message for future readers, or for future versions of yourself… Like having a child or planting a garden, annotating a book is an expression of hope for the future. Adding a comment to a text, I affirm that I, or someone, will pick up the volume again someday — that books will endure as objects of interest in a civilization not wholly digital.
By this logic, the people who spraypaint the rocks at a scenic overlook or carve their initials into a tree are also expressing a “hope for the future,” a desire to have a “conversation” with other visitors for whom natural beauty will continue to endure as an object of interest. Need I say more, or have we successfully reduced this sentiment to the absurd? Most of the highlighting I encounter in books leaves me thinking something along the lines of, “What kind of simpleton thought that was profound?” or “You honestly couldn’t have remembered that point without coloring it in?” Not once have I encountered the droppings of some doodler, scribbler, or codex vandal and thought, “Now, there’s someone I wish I could have known and conversed with.”
I admit, I used to use a red pen to enclose noteworthy passages in my reading between small, unobtrusive parentheses marks, but I don’t even do that any more. In recent months, I’ve been using Post-It tape tabs where necessary, which makes finding a relevant passage again much easier than scanning page after page looking for the telltale red pen marks. There are tradeoffs in anything, though, and in this case, some of my most thought-provocative books look like the United Nations building, with all those colorful flags fluttering from the page edges. It’s not as aesthetically pleasing, but it’s a bit less destructive to the book environment. “Take nothing but ideas; leave nothing but easily-removable sticky tabs.”