The Help Desk: Rules for writing in books

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

How do you feel about writing in books? I mean, jotting notes in the margins and highlighting and all that crap. I read somewhere that doing that is supposed to make you smarter, but it just seems like defacing the book to me. And even if it kills the resale value (eh, who cares), why would I want my thoughts plastered all over, I dunno, Anna Karenina or whatever. That’s what diaries and journals are for. God, I’ve seen some pretty stupid shit written in books. Then again, I’m not really that smart myself, so maybe I’m missing out on something.

Bertrand, Greenlake

Dear Bertrand,

I never write in books for the same reason I have never kept a journal or a diary: I don't want to give the government yet another means of reading my thoughts.

But yes, I'm generally fine with other people writing in books – in fact, I enjoy reading anonymous people's opinions as they clash or agree with the text. In that way, books are like bathroom stalls and comments are consensual voyeurism (my favorite kind of voyeurism!). I kind of wish all of my books came with anonymous, thoughtful dialogue but as I read in a book somewhere, if wishes were horses we'd all be eating dog food for dinner.

There are rules to writing in books, of course. They can be summed up as follows: always write in pencil, ditch the highlighters and never obscure the text for the next reader.