Why You Should Deface Your Books

If you live in the UK and aren’t already on it, all the Hermiones, Where’s Wallys and Cats in Hats at the school gate will soon remind you that today is World Book Day. While the UK event focuses on children, the global event (held on April 23) is a day for all to celebrate the power of the page. And to that I say a hearty Yes! Whenever I’ve moved homes, removalists have complained about the number of books they’ve had to shift. If I had to rescue something from a burning house, I’d be singed head-to-toe as I um-ed and ah-ed over each title. To me, libraries are temples of discovery and an afternoon sitting by a bay window with a hot chocolate and a good book is a taste of heaven. What wisdom and wonder great books can lead us to.

Holy Marginalia

I know as kids we were taught not to, but I’m now a proud defacer of books. In fact, I judge a book by how many dog ears and margin scribbles it has by the time I’ve finished it—a sure sign of how much the author has made me think or imagine. When I found some of my own books in a second-hand bookshop recently, I was delighted to find one of them full of such scribbles. (Another one looked like it had been donated unread, but let’s not talk about that.)

Marginalia in books has a long history. The eighth-century masterpiece The Lindisfarne Gospels has scribbled notes throughout its velum pages, with flowers and vines doodled in between letters, drawings of dog-like creatures peeking from corners and birds flitting among its words. The result is a jaw-dropping thing of beauty conveying the idea that this book doesn’t just contain information, but life—the Voice that said “Let there be light” (and colour, and birds and flowers) is ready to be heard through its pages.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, Xi Ro page (source)

How to Read a Book

I’ve had experiences like that. Some years ago, having left my job and feeling anxious about where my work would come from, my Bible fell open to a verse in the gospels. “Don’t work for food that spoils,” it read, “but for food that endures to eternal life—which the Son of man will give you” (John 6:27). In that moment it felt like a Voice was being heard beyond the printed words on the page. The promised work came, and an asterisk now marks that verse as a memorial to the moment.

I know the idea fills some with horror, akin to taking crayons to a wall, but on World Book Day I can’t think of anything better than to buy a new book and wrestle with its words—scribbling in the margins, doodling between the letters, even listening for another Voice while wringing each page for all the wisdom and wonder it has to give.

First broadcast in shortened form on BCC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Breakfast Show (listen here)

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  • March 2, 2023

    Being the Catholic school student I was for 12 years, writing in books was not encouraged. But now I highlight, notate, and underline to my heart’s content. His voice speaks to me upon every rereading of His Words as I reflect on where my life was at my original “defacing.”


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