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.
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.
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 I reread the book while working on the notes.
Oftentimes I gain insight.
Rarely is it boring.
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?