What’s Underlying in the Underline

Down South of the Border, West of the Sun, Moushumi is writing about the humble underline. She thinks it is quite underrated. The post resonates with me. For long, apart from my name, the date & place of purchase, I never wrote in a book. No, not even an underline. But, like it has been for her, things have changed for me too.

From the time I started buying books, I have been extremely possessive about my books. Apart from the yellowing of pages, my books look new. No dog-ears, no scars, no tears, no broken spines. A few of my favourite books sometimes get cling-wrapped. They get opened, and they get cling-wrapped again. And definitely no coffee and food stains. It’s a simple rule; at any given time, you either feed your body or feed your mind. So, Moushumi and I are not very different that way. There was a time when I used to lend and borrow books. Once, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest came back home to me, with a large coffee stain on page 38. I once lent Microsoft Secrets, to the HR head of my old company. It never came back.

That day, I stopped lending.

My friends know this. And I love gifting books, so if I really want someone to read something, I’ll usually gift the book. But I never lend. And by the same standard, I never borrow. The Dharma Bum, when he heard of this theory, agreed with it, but has had second thoughts:

I still cannot bring myself to lend or borrow, but the writing-in-the-book rule is changing. Perhaps, it was because of The Journey to the East. This book is inherited. My father bought it on 8th of August 1982. In the book, I found his annotations: underlines, and notes in the margins. It was a sweet note from heaven. I stopped reading the book and started scanning for his notes. All the notes were boldly done in blue pen. A bit of his soul was in that book. While the book itself is beautiful, it became that much more special for me. When I (re)started reading the book, my own annotations and underlines appeared; but not so bold. I used a pencil.

The Journey to the East; Hermann Hesse; Bantam Press

The Journey to the East; Hermann Hesse; Bantam Press

I now use a combination of stickies, underlines, brackets, and margin notes. It is a good experience to go back to a book that you have read years ago, and to flip through the best and the most interesting parts of the book.  But I still do not lend or borrow books. Which means that all the annotations I make, are only for me. At least for now. A few weeks ago, I told a friend that I’d be happy to lend him my books. Only because I know he respects books as much as I do. I’d lend my books to Moushumi too. However, I cannot (yet) bring myself to feel romantic about dog-ears and broken spines. I don’t see the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes out of mutilation (I know, strong word)

But that may change someday, just like the underlines and the notes. Perhaps I’ll learn that from some book.

We never know, how a book and how a friend may change us.


Here are some of the underlines from my books:

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22 thoughts on “What’s Underlying in the Underline

  1. I am so glad we are going through this ‘underline’ conversion together! I will wait for the dog ears and broken spines…. all in good time! 😛

    I almost yearn for my younger self who is not preserved in the underlines of my books. Hopefully, my future self will look back at the passages I have underlined now and appreciate them.

    I lend out books but not to many people since some of them don’t seem to come back. Some have come back, I must add. And I would need a thick library ledger to note down who took what, when and didn’t return till date! Thanks Atul, I am honoured that you will consider me to lend your books to. And oh, the lending is mutual.

    Finally, I am so touched that the underline connected you with your father. That’s what lines do – connect people. Be it the train line, the lines in a book or the ‘humble underline’.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing this 🙂 I know exactly what you mean. I am so obsessed that when I am at others’ places and find books that are left face down, I pull out a random something to act as a bookmark and leave it there. Sometimes I even gift bookmarks later! I have been reconsidering the marking bit, and must confess that I’ve just begun to do it. About lending, well that’s a story for later 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know exactly what you mean. If you see a guy rearranging books in a book store, putting them upright, re-ordering them and putting them back into the shelves after they have been browsed, that’s me. I don’t recall if I have done that in someone’s house, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I did. 🙂

      I’ll wait for the lending story. Coming soon to a blog near me? 😉


  3. Actually I don’t underline “because” I do lend my books. I used to be possessive about books too, and do hate people using bed as bookmark (broken spine, anyone?). I have used mobile phone as temporary bookmark, even another book, but I don’t like to keep the book open face down even for a second. But over the years, I’m letting it go. I think the biggest sin done to a book is it not being read, not being cared for its content — especially if it’s a book I have loved. Then the sin is against me. So against that, most other mutilations are nothing. Do I still get restless when I see someone putting any book open face down, but that’s just my OCD. I’m not proud of it anymore.

    Still I don’t underline because I feel when I do that I’m making the book non lend-able. I do underline my kindle books endlessly though, as I do not lend them, or I can always lend a copy. The thing is, I don’t want to take away from a prospective reader the fun of discovering the things I’ve discovered. So my underlines are actually in form of notes on post-its. These days I even take photographs.

    Yup, I’m definitely weird.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You should underline “because” you lend books. Other readers will discover what they need to discover, irrespective – as Moushumi says, the book becomes a little bit more human because of that. Do see the Strand Book Store link in her post. Since I usually have a pencil or a wad of stickies, they work as temporary bookmarks. But I usually have a “real” bookmark in every book that I start reading. Sometimes I come back to a partly-read book after years.

      But, you are right on target, about the biggest sin. That is why I recommend books. 😀

      If weird has sub-categories, we are all different. When you roll it up, we are all the same! 🙂


  4. Hello there, and happy new year! I used to feel the same about writing in my books, but changed as well after some time. Now, I have a series of books I will write in (for the most part fiction and books on writing) and a collection where I will never write in. Recently, I’ve gotten back into using sticky notes in my books because I finally had the chance to start reading Jung’s “Man and His Symbols” (a gift from an old professor), only, it’s one of the earliest editions, from the seventies if not late sixties. Though I know it’s not overly valuable or anything, I have an emotional connection with it, and so, find it hard marring the pages with ink. But, I also believe I’ll grow and be able to personalize my own library a bit more. Thanks for your post, very thought provoking!

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. talk about being OCD 🙂 cling film … wow … i am like that with my graphic novels. not cling film, but not lending. Usually if i buy fiction (and it is usually pulpy airport reads), i hand it over to the next person to read

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yeah! @ Cling film! 😀 Books that I don’t think are worth keeping (i.e. they have served their purpose, I usually donate to a library). And you must have noticed, I still, for the life of me, cannot underline/mark with a pen. It’s still a pencil. 🙂


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