I still remember the first time I saw it. I was browsing through a used book store and re-reading The Great Gatsby for pleasure, (hey, you have your pleasures, I have mine) when I saw it at the end of Chapter three.
Someone had underlined the last sentence in the paragraph and drawn a star beside it at the end. They wrote in a book. A book full of someone else’s words. I wasn’t aware people did that.
Not that my family tried to safeguard our books; you can’t safeguard possessions you love and use daily. Our books were tattooed with coffee-cup stains, dog-eared and limp with wear. A few loved storybooks suffered with fractured spines and key pages had to be turned carefully. We were hard on the books we loved, but we never wrote on their pages.
I bought the used book, partly because I love the story and partly because I was curious about the previous owner’s additions. The check marks and dashes seemed like someone else’s coded commentary that expanded my vision of the story. I wanted to decipher the code.
I never quite succeeded in that but I learned why some folk annotate text: they tell you to do this in school. In high school, teachers encouraged us to highlight or underline key points and by college, the rumor was used text books were better because the previous owner had already done the highlighting. By the way, this only works if the original owner marks the correct passages.
And that’s the issue of annotated text: if the extra comment makes a reasonable point. I hated seeing a beautiful descriptive passage marked with a vertical line and then dismissed with the written comment “B.S.” That has no place in Madame Bovary.
But text annotation continues, even into electronic texts. Kindle has an option of seeing where other readers annotated their copies of your book and lets you read their commentary. Sometimes the comments are thoughtful and succinct; sometimes they’re verbal graffiti. Like reading the comments on an internet article, at best it’s a mixed bag
So no, I don’t usually write in my books, and I don’t like most of what other folks add. But I make one big exception to that rule. It’s not hard to guess what that is.