Day 6: Writing in the margins of Dani Shapiro’s book Devotion

January 6th, 2013 § 8 comments


I love books. I love reading. I love the power of words to transport us, change us, connect us.

One author I admire in every way — personally and professionally — is Dani Shapiro. This post from 2011 doesn’t talk about the details of her latest book Devotion, but I still want to repost it not only to encourage you to read the book for yourself but also because I think it’s intersting to think about how we interact with what we read. Dani has a new book coming out called Still Writing. There isn’t anyone to me who can capture the art of writing the way she can.


I’m not the kind of person who reads books twice. My husband wears down the fibers in the covers of some of his books, corners frayed by his hands as he holds and bends the written pages. Me? I barely have enough time to read a book once. My attention span is short, my free time small. With three children and a house to take care of there just doesn’t seem to be time to do everything I want.

This morning I awoke knowing what I wanted to do. I wanted to re-read sections of Dani Shapiro‘s second memoir, Devotion. About twenty pages into it I realized I was literally itching to do something: write in the book. I hadn’t allowed myself to do that the first time. Lately I had felt that my books (especially ones written by people I knew in person or on Twitter, even moreso if signed by the author) should remain pristine. I have eschewed e-readers in every form for this very reason… typing notes in margins is not as satisfying as using colored ink to have my interactive conversation with the author. Sometimes exclamation points or “YES!” will interrupt the creamy expanse of the margin, but more often than that my graduate school training has led me to issue challenges to the author. Questions that start with “But what about…” or the challenging, “Does not take into account…” are what you will find in my books. As I try to process what the author says I imagine I am conversing with them. And, in fact, I am; writers write to start a conversation with the reader. If all the reader does is absorb without processing I think the author might be disappointed.

As I started Dani’s book this morning I realized the pristine condition of my hardcover was getting in my way. I needed to interact with it to really get the full benefit of her words. It seems the right thing to do. Only pages in to this second time through, I was already finding questions I want to ask her. I was, after all, a different person by my second reading. I was coming to the book with more experiences, different concerns and thoughts than I previously had. I came to the book with many of the same questions Dani herself was seeking to answer when she started writing. I realized that in the same way she had made sense of what happened to her by writing, I needed to do that too. Writing in the margins was my microcosm of that experience; without “talking back” I had missed a lot of the beauty and significance of her words.

I already feel myself digesting her words in a different way. The same way I cannot experience major events in my life without writing I realized this morning I cannot make sense of words without reacting. As my memory has declined and my mental capacities have suffered over the past few years I can’t rely on them to retain the memories of the sentences and paragraphs that have spoken to me. I need to wrestle with them, tease them out, formulate responses.

My book will be riddled with ink by the time I am done. But I realized today that is precisely as it should be. I think Dani would like that. I think it means I’m learning.


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§ 8 Responses to Day 6: Writing in the margins of Dani Shapiro’s book Devotion"

  • I have grappled with the same issue but when I read our friend Katie Rosman’s book, I couldn’t STOP underlining and scribbling notes, thoughts and reminders. It’s completely striated at this point. If someone were to find it, they’d know I have a visceral reaction to the stories within it. Of course that won’t happen because I wouldn’t dare part with it. You articulated this engagement with a writer beautifully. Off to pick up Dani’s book!

  • sharon says:

    Lisa, I know exactly what you meant about the books. I love books, they are the thing that grounds me on more days than not. Many of my books are written in. One of the finest times I have is going back and seeing what I thought at certain periods. I am not only challenging and relating to the writer, but then challenging even my own thoughts.

  • Michele says:

    I write in books, always in pencil in case my words get in the way of the author’s. But lately I’ve found writing in library books. I want to tell those people to keep it to themselves.

  • I can’t sit down to read a book without a pen in one hand and paper close by as it seems as if I there is something that I read that I will have to write, comment or share. However, not until you wrote about it in your post, did I ever think of this as a way of interacting with the book’s author. What beauty!
    Oh, and Michele…I never mark in a library book–shame on whoever is doing that…

  • Katherine C. James says:

    I used to write in hardcover, first editions of books I read. Since I am a constant re-reader of books I love, I’ve had the peculiar experience of encountering the book anew—since each time I read I am a different person, changed by the layers of experience and revelation enameled within me since I last read—and encountering my own remarks anew. My earlier remarks no longer fit a surprising amount of the time, but I love reading what I felt in much the same way I enjoy old journal entries. I think: can this ever have been me?, or, I’m surprised I could not see this then, or, I love the person I was then who felt this. I tend to keep my book margins pristine now, and write my thoughts about the book in my journal. Recently, I’ve wanted to pick up a pencil again and fill the margins as well as my journal. Maybe I will try that again now. Since you say you don’t often reread, this may not be as meaningful to you as it is to me, but I love Wendy Lesser’s book NOTHING REMAINS THE SAME, on how a book re-read changes because we have changed.

  • Lisa, as a fellow writer and questioner of all things, I love this post. We should all be unafraid to write in the margins of books and above all, question.

  • Kara says:

    I think writing in the books you read can also be a way of connecting with your children whenever and if they decide to read the books in your home library. They will benefit having your jotted down thought or underlined passage highlighted as ‘something Mom thought was funny/interesting/important/spoke to her’. Even if you are just in the next room it will be a shared experience.

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