On Annotating Books

My annotations on a page from John Banville’s Birchwood.

 

To read, I need a book and a pencil.

I’d like to emphasis that the pencil is as much a conduit of information between book and mind, as are eyes and brain, and as much of a physical necessity, as is my ability to hold a book open or flip a page.

I produce the following anecdotal evidence:

If I sink into a sofa with a book, but without a pencil, I will exhibit all the symptoms of anxiety and discomfort—fidgeting, gazing about, scratching, gazing about, back-and-forth page-flipping because I can’t remember what I just read, and some more gazing about—until I finally get up and acquire that writing implement I’d been gazing about for.

It has to be a pencil (preferably a mechanical pencil so I don’t need to sharpen it), but no erasers are needed.

michal-grosicki https://unsplash.com/photos/refAFfV35Cw

Reading implements.

 

Underlining is much maligned; it’s generally useless, it’s for those who can’t think at the time of reading but leave it for later, it produces an appearance of engagement while actually reducing it.

All true.

That is why I mark up the text and take notes.

Marking up a text involves:

  • circling words (unknown, or with connotations I’d like to check),
  • squaring words (quoins),
  • drawing arrows and curves (to indicate forms of interconnectedness),
  • vertical lines in the margins to mark more than two lines of interest (with brief comments about why I care),
  • and indeed, underlining a sentence or two, which is accompanied by appropriate notes such as:
    • tick marks (to mean beautifully said), ha!, huh?, meh?, wow, no?! (self-explanatory, although personally nuanced),
    • QQ (recent: to indicate quotes that would stand alone and be suitable for the blog),
    • mysterious scrawl (again about why I care),
    • and various shortcuts for private use whose significance may be transitory and whose legibility definitely is mood-dependent.

Page-inviolability and book-sanctity have their place, but not in this post; here I am referring to expendable paperback copies, rather than valuable editions or invaluable crumbling manuscripts. Also, this is why I use a pencil, and lightly, for I am aware that I may want to erase something later.

(For those wondering how I interact with e-books: well-spotted! No pencil is needed, although there my notational options are different and therefore so is my mark-up system. I use the colours of highlighters to encode the type of quotation.)

Now, to make sense of all those notes …

Indeed, when I’ve finished reading—this goes for fiction too—I close the book, then open it again at the beginning so I can “process” my notes. Time passes between the closing and opening: hours, months.

[Insert expression of disbelief and tedium.]

“Processing” involves looking up and learning the words I’d circled, various modes of copying lines out or chasing up references (this is how I find my next to-read books), and lastly, writing a short review on Goodreads or in a file. The purpose of the latter is to summarise my attitude, opinion, impression. Usually the preceding work was technical and mechanical, and whilst I did do some of compare-combine-contemplate, what I didn’t do was distill. So that last step, the review, is a chance to write a few lines—and I do mean not many, between a paragraph and few paragraphs, some of which appear on Quiver Quotes—and tell the world and my future self what I made of the book.

The review is a mnemonic springboard.

Ask me what I thought about a book after a year … I’ll first read you the review (with which I may no longer agree, by the way). It will provide me with the keywords I need to discuss the book and it will unlock the floodgates of memory. For details, I’ll open the annotated copy of the book, or my notes.


In summary, there are at least three ways to read a book:

  • Pencil-less reading (plain),
  • Reading-with-pencil (interactive),
  • Reading-with-pencil-and-revision (contemplative).

If a book is good, there is a gulf between plain and interactive reading, and another gulf between interactive and contemplative.

Conversely, the difference between plain and interactive, and interactive and contemplative, determines the level of esteem in which I hold a book. (Exceptions, exceptions.)

Of course, I have to modulate my criteria for length and form of book, target audience, purpose—in other words, like I wrote in Dissenting voices—pigeonholing a book focuses my reading approach. Alternatively, with certain experimental or literary fiction, only a contemplative approach can help pigeonhole a book; the fog of reading delirium obscures the curvature of a path, and only the final twist on the final page in the final line shows the overall shape of the course.

Sometimes the interaction reduces otherwise unbearable or unpalatable tension, like it did for me in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (which I wrote about in How to Survive a Tough Book), and revision consolidates the overall impression of the book.

Sometimes the revision turns into in-depth thinking about why some fact was included but others were not (Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane, Six Hundred and Twenty-Three).

Sometimes I reread the book while working on the notes.

Oftentimes I gain insight.

Rarely is it boring.

patrick-tomasso https://unsplash.com/photos/Oaqk7qqNh_c


Months ago, I promised to some of my readers that I would write an article on note-taking—I hope I haven’t fallen short of too many expectations.

I am aware much is left unsaid: what of PDFs, what of short stories, what of comics; what of fiction vs non-fiction vs plays vs poetry vs scientific papers; what of re-reading; what of organisational elements like files and notebooks; what of reading in a foreign language; what of balancing reading-speed with an urge to write an essay in the margins; what of discipline and daydreams.

If curious, feel free to ask.

I’m curious, so I’m asking you: how do you annotate books?

 

30 responses

  1. I have just come in from visiting my son and his wife. I really think you will laugh – that is if you laugh at the ironic and bizarre. I wanted to ask him if he had a copy of a particular book and he took me into his study. I did notice a strange look on his face when I said, “African Genesis, by Robert Ardrey.” Then I looked at the wall of books. They were all arranged in colour. The colour of the spines. Starting on the top left – Red then grading toward orange,then yellow etc. etc. I broke down laughing when she said, “It looks good but it makes it a bit difficult to find what you want.”
    Maybe you could write a page on “How to organise your library!”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, that is bizarre—but for a different reason!

      Firstly, the colour scheme doesn’t surprise me because Manguel goes into great detail in his Chapter The Library as Order. And indeed, the following shows that your son and his wife are in good company. Excerpt:

      The novelist Georges Perec once listed a dozen ways in which to classify one’s library, “non satisfactory in itself.” He halfheartedly suggested the following orders:

      • alphabetically
      • by continent or country
      • by colour
      • by date of purchase

      (That’s not all, but I’ll save the rest.)

      Now to why your suggestion is bizarre (actually, more surprisingly pertinent): this week’s series is on libraries! Indeed, so is likely next week’s, as I’ve already set the topics. I deliberately stayed away from writing a whole post on how to organise a library because I thought there were many offerings elsewhere. However, if taken all together, my whole library series should offer a view on book sorting (that isn’t just a list of the kind Perec gave) and the effect it has on its readers.

      Let me know what you think!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Alright, I see the full quote is in demand, so here it is, as it appears on p.40 of Manguel’s The Library at Night.

        The novelist Georges Perec once listed a dozen ways in which to classify one’s library, “non satisfactory in itself.” He halfheartedly suggested the following orders:

        • alphabetically
        • by continent or country
        • by colour
        • by date of purchase
        • by date of publication
        • by format
        • by genre
        • by literary period
        • by language
        • according to our reading priorities
        • according to their binding
        • by series

        I guess the binding/format/series covers your ‘spine height’ and ‘Penguin softbacks’. I’m not sure ‘random’ counts as ‘classification’ 😛 Which leaves ‘by thickness’. I admit that’s exotic: so you actually sorted them at one point by thickest to one end, thinest to the other (or up, down etc)? I suppose that might work, if you’re thoroughly familiar with the physical appearance of the book (number of pages isn’t a good indicator, as the quality, weight, and thickness of paper, as well as, hardback/paperback determine the final width). Did it work?

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  2. I got my love of reading from my grandfather. After he passed away, I was delighted to find that his entire book collection was annotated. He’d underline passages and words. He’d make notes with family members’ names when he read something he wanted to share (or maybe made him think of that person). He’d look up definitions of words and scrawl them in the margins along with dimensions of structures mentioned in the text – if it was applicable.

    Looking over these annotations in the books he loved was so touching to me and ever since then, I’ve never been able to sit down and read without a pencil next to me. It makes the reading experience so much more interactive and I think I’d be making my Grandpa proud if he could see me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, that’s so sweet … I’m sure your Grandpa would have loved to read your commentary overlay.

      I’ve inherited a few books with word definitions, but not a single one with such detailed annotations. Reading your comment, I realised I forgot to mention in the post that I also sometimes write family names in the margins for the same reason! I occasionally draw little doodle-illustrations, too, although they’re shaky as I often read away from my desk.

      Thanks for sharing your story—I didn’t know of anyone who’d found such a wonderfully annotated collection that belonged to their loved ones. It sounds like a vast gift full of fine surprises.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It certainly meant a lot to me as well as my close family members. His collection will be treasured for years to come.

        And thank you for writing this post – as I hope it encourages more people to do this while they read. I never knew how much it would mean to me to read over a loved one’s annotations. What a memorable way to still have a connection with loved ones once you are gone.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I relate very much to the need of taking notes. What prevents me of scribbling into margins is the thought that books will outlive me, and my scribbles might spoil the experience for future readers. Instead, small sticky notes litter the books I enjoyed, to lead me back to thoughts that sparked connections, instances I might use in a review, or to a word I want to look up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very considerate and kind! I spent years borrowing from the local library, where books would often have thick underlining and highlights and notes. It did spoil my experience, and I was paranoid to write in my books for the same reason: spoiling the text for others (and even for my future self). I tried sticky notes, writing in notebooks or notepads, even going back and trying to memories, but I realised it was either too much of a time sink or too restrictive. As I buy paperbacks, I finally decided I’d have to risk it and make the most of my copies. But I respect what you’re doing—if there were a way to overlay notes, then remove them before passing on a book … Hopes, hopes, hopes. Technology has a way to go.

      Thank you for sharing your method! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Omg AH-MAZING! Thanks so much for this!!!! I’ve never written in a book. As in ever. But I have to say that I absolutely love the look of a book with marks that have the readers thoughts, opinions, questions and more in them. And like you said, a year after the fact there’s no way for me to go back and look at the specific things I liked/didn’t like, or the things I wanted to remember. This would clear that up!! I like that you do different marks for different thoughts as well (circles, squares, and lines). I’m still feeling a bit of anxiety about actually writing in a book though. For now I use sticky notes, but I do want to eventually adapt to this! It’s more personal and allows for more specifics.
    Thanks so much for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, glad you think it might be helpful!

      I know it’s a bit daunting, and at first it felt like sacrilege, but then I realised that the work, the story, the piece of art wasn’t the actual page I had under my pencil, but an arrangement of words and ideas that could be reproduced. Ironically perhaps, the whole point of a printed text is its very reproducibility (and its ability to be transmitted through the vastness of space and time). Therefore the only way to make a copy truly our own is to interact with it in a hands-on, can’t-erase-completely kind of way. Nowadays, I consider annotating a text to be a way of honouring that text, book, author (not that they care), because in doing so I’ve deemed their work worthy of studying 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I underline and put question marks and a few similar comment that you suggested. If I lend a book to someone I always leave a note in the front saying that I am happy for them to make brief comments. I then flip through returned books to see what my friends thought. But V few people feel comfortable writing in a book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I too would feel uncomfortable writing in someone else’s book … Did you notice the density of my notation in the first picture? That doesn’t occur on every page, of course, but I’d feel rather uncomfortable doing that in a borrowed book, no matter how lightly, and how much I was encouraged. If nothing else, after so much work I bond with the copy and it’s almost as if I’ve left an intimate piece of myself on its pages (but only in a format that I could appreciate). Though, perhaps I would venture some syllabic commentary in the margins if explicitly asked.

      Like

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