I checked a book out from the Harold B. Lee Library on my campus a few weeks ago (John Dewey's Experience and Education) and when I opened it I noticed that at least a quarter of the pages have notes written on them. To some this would be horrifying or at least annoying--I was excited. At the risk of bringing down the wrath of my bespectacled elementary school librarian (who, by the way, I am still truly terrified of--it's amazing that I don't have more of a negative relationship with books), I'd like to make an argument for the value of writing in books, particularly those books which are likely to be read by others at some point.
I make the assumption that virtually all learning is and should be approached as a conversation. It's easy to see the conversational metaphor in traditional learning activities (e.g. conversations among learners and teachers in classroom settings), but reading a book is also a conversation between the reader and the author. Of course, for some learners, the conversation is largely one-sided because their reading does little to elicit questions, new ideas, or responses. But, nonetheless, when they read someone else's ideas in a book they are engaging in a conversation.
As an undergraduate I had a tremendous mentor who re-ignited my passion for reading (I loved reading as a child, but about the time I hit junior high school it died out for one reason or another). One of the first books he lent to me was Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. I still remember being intrigued by the fact that he wrote in his books (again, the evilness of this practice had been well ingrained in my mind by Mrs. Robinson at Upland Terrace Elementary). At first, I didn't pay much attention to his scribbles; however, at some point I realized that reading his notes, not only helped me understand Gladwell's ideas but also helped me see how they applied to my own experiences. What I loved most were the questions he posed in response to Gladwell's arguments because they invited me into an internal conversation where I could sift through Gladwell's ideas, my mentors responses, and my own wonderings. I can't say this for sure, but I wonder if I would have been excited about The Tipping Point and reading other things like it, had I not had the "conversational" experience with that copy of the book that particular summer. I spent the rest of that summer borrowing books from the same mentor and I always hoped that when I opened them the first time, they would be filled with his musings and questions.
My reading that summer not only kindled my interest in social science (I read Bob Putnam, Steven Johnson, more Gladwell, James Surowiecki, and Michael Lewis that summer), but taught me about how to have conversations with books. By the end of August I was buying my own books so that I could write in them, ask questions, draw diagrams, and argue with the author. I have continued my habit of well-intentioned book desecration and, today, there probably aren't many books on my shelf that haven't been written on. In fact, I lend a fair amount of books out to the students who I work with. Every once in a while one will make a comment about something I've written, which is gratifying. It's probably a stretch to assume that any of my scribblings will influence anyone quite like my mentor's ruminations did, but it's a nice thought to entertain.