The myth of the “virgin” book

The first time is always the most awkward. You don’t know where to put it, and don’t even know if this is the right time. But this is something important that you want to remember when you’re older.

These are common dilemmas when someone considers introducing the first foreign stroke of ink to an otherwise untouched book. The reasons are many: resale value, the holiness of the author’s words and a fear of focusing on the wrong line.

Used books are often priced at a lower rate than new books, implying they are worth less. Gill Hill/Argosy

The idea of writing in books was rather alien to me when it was introduced at a book reading many years ago by the actions of one of the characters, whose name I have since forgotten. It took until now for me to realize it is a misfortune that inked books are valued less monetarily than new books, and not encouraged. This is especially true in high school, where we were punished for writing in our textbooks, and thus lost our heart to try it again.

What I call inking is simply the adding of foreign words and ideas to a book (or any type of physical text) by your own hand. It can take any form, whatever the second hand author feels is appropriate. Granted, this can mean a book filled with the highest grade of hatred. Yet, this practice of making spiteful comments is not much of a difference from social media. So hopefully, you will choose to fill your books with only the most philosophical of thoughts.

The truth is that inking is communication in one of its finest forms. Without it, a book is only the words of a single author, or maybe a small group of collaborators. It is suspended in time, never changing unless a new edition is created. It is assumed that the only reason to read a book is for the treasured words of one person. The readers are only passive bystanders, nothing more.

Inking is a story within a story, but only if the book that you marked with your underscores and thoughts is passed on. Otherwise, it is only a tome on your shelf collecting dust with fading emphases. However, when it is inherited — be it from a used book store, as a half-assed Christmas gift or on the steps of a nunnery — it is a narrative of a fellow seeker of knowledge. This could be a totally new person, or an older edition of yourself.

The plot and facts portrayed by the primary author are not changed, since that ink is fairly permanent. The ink on the margin tells the story of the secondary author(s). What did they underline? What did they find important? Why did they write this or that next to this quote? This is the reader’s journey of trying to decipher the actions of those whose ink stains the pages. Thus, the results are an ever-shifting contribution of ideas across time and space.

By writing in between the margins, readers can fight the myth of the “virgin” book with their own words and thoughts. Who doesn’t want to call out the bullshit in some old books?

Daniel MacGregor
Daniel MacGregor is a Contributor to the Argosy.