Five Reasons why Readers have Stopped Writing their Names in Books

Have you written your name in a book? My first books have my name written in a child’s print, later in cursive. Working in the family print shop, I created a rubber stamp with my name and address. I stopped when I left home; my address changed too often. Bookplates — or ex libris, Latin, “from the books of …” — are decorative labels pasted in the front cover of a book, filled in with the name of the owner. I printed bookplates with a letterpress. Writing one’s name in a book is a practice dating back to the twelfth century. People would write their name, profession, residence, the book’s price, the giver if it was a gift, the date it was obtained, and even how long it took to read. Some readers will underline passages or add marginalia, comments or pictures in the margins. Others think it sacrilegious to write in books or will only write in pencil.

Why do readers write in books? And why have they stopped? I can think of five reasons:

Abundance. Books used to be scarce. They were an asset in a collection. If you loaned a book out you expected to get it back. Books are abundant today. They still have a price, and can be expensive, but most everyone has access to books. When I lend a book, I do not expect to see it again. Even so, I lend books. There are plenty more.

Fashion. Bookplates are beautiful, emblazoned with a coat of arms, but heraldry was a medieval military fashion and passed with it. People still find heraldry and bookplates fascinating, collecting them in the way people collect stamps or coins. It is now just a specialist hobby.

E-book Ownership. The concept of book ownership has changed. If you purchase a print book, it is yours for as long as you like and you can do what you like with it. Today, when you buy an e-book you are only purchasing a license to access the book’s contents. You do not own the book. You may not copy it. You may not sell or give it to anyone. If you do not own it, why write your name in it?

E-books are Read-Only. Even if you owned an e-book you could not write in it. Better e-readers allow you to highlight passages and export quotes and notes, but you cannot write notes in the text or make copies. It comes down to digital abundance and licensing. Digital content can be copied and modified so easily, publishers artificially limit the native digital capabilities of e-books to ensure sales.

Reading is Continuous. Reading has traditionally been a private event, something done quietly and alone. We would set aside time dedicated to reading, and when we were finished a book it felt like a personal accomplishment. It seemed natural to complete the event by writing our name in the book. Reading has changed with technology — it is now both open and continuous. We read more books than ever. We talk about books more than ever on social reading websites. We read e-books and they read us back, tracking the titles we purchase, our reading pace, and even the passages we like best. Publishers know just what we want. The line between writers and readers is blurred. We chat with authors as we the read their books. We give feedback for their next book, and publish alternate “fan” versions. Reading is no longer limited to books. We read constantly on computer screens and mobile devices. The notion of distinct reading events is gone. Reading is continuous.