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I can’t write in books

I can’t force myself to write in books. Highlighting is off-limits too. I’m not even able to bend them too much; I cringe when I see someone read a paperback bent so that front and back covers are touching. My wife finds my behavior perplexing, and I have tried to figure out why I feel this way. I think I know where it comes from.

My family comes from modest means. We always had books at home, but most of them were works of fiction—not a study material unless you’re into analyzing literature. Because books were scarce, permanently marking them and possibly ruining them was off-putting. We also used to frequent libraries and I borrowed books from friends, and writing anything in those was strictly forbidden.

When I started to develop my niche interests as a teenager, I couldn’t find that many books in Croatian, so I had to find books in foreign languages. Following the civil war in former Yugoslavia in the mid-90s, getting a book in English shipped to Croatia was cumbersome and expensive. I also had to pay for it myself. I earned pocket money through manual labor, primarily by working in a small factory during summer or on-demand jobs in a warehouse. I measured the price of a book by how many days I have to work to buy it—the average was two for a technical book. To me, that was too expensive to use as note-taking papers.

Today, I’m fortunate that I don’t have to think twice before buying a book, but two other reasons keep me from scribbling in the margins. The first is that I like to keep my notes in the same place—and because I read paper and electronic books and listen to audiobooks—I try to avoid being tied to a particular hard copy of a book or technology. The second reason is that I’m giving away more and more of my physical books lately; I keep only those very dear to my heart, those that I plan to read again, and those that I need for reference. If I give away a book containing my notes, I lose them, and the receiver is either distracted, doesn’t have space to add theirs, or both.

I’m a firm believer that taking notes is better than not taking them, even if it’s directly and permanently in books. If you’re a fan and practitioner of marginalia, you’re doing a great job already.

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