On Annotating

In general, as a student I am not one to annotate, so one when it comes to writing in books, the short answer is that I do not, at all. As an outsider, the idea of a colorful annotated book, with color coded content is intriguing, however my brain just does not work this way. Only time I would ever be caught writing in books would be if I were to be forced to, i.e. a homework assignment or something of that nature. That being said, in the rare circumstance were I do find myself being forced to write in books I tend to abuse the skill of underlining and usually just resort to writing brief summaries next to each paragraph to make sure I got the jist of the content. For the most part I depend on the always handy summarizing and paraphrasing skills to make sure I understand what I am reading. This also comes in handy when I have to write about whatever I read later because I can just rewrite what I already wrote on the margins. When I write on the margins, I tend to write to myself and depend on a newly composed language of my choice as I see fit. As long, as I can understand it, it is all good. In hindsight, only time I genuinely annotate out of my own free will would be on my second run through the book. The first time, I read solely to understand the content and this takes me very long so, to take my time to annotate would not be time efficient. However, if assigned an assignment where I have to gather evidence or quotes, or do a word count of a specific word I will use annotating. I will dog-ear pages, and circle words, and highlight sentences, but I do all of this not out of pleasure or as a means for better understanding, but rather necessity and data gathering. I can only annotate once I know what I am annotating for, or already have an objective in mind, I cannot annotate blindly because I’ll just highlight the entire book from start to finish. Quickly touching upon, other people annotations, I simply do not find much use in them, I never even consider looking at them. I think this is for two reasons. The first reason is that I don’t think that anybody thinks the way I do so I do not think I will find anything useful in their annotations. The second reason has to do with my subconscious, being that because I know I annotate in my own language and in poor handwriting, I just assume everyone else does as well, so I do not think I could possibly understand their annotations if I wanted to. Lastly, when it comes to digital archives or PDFs, i approach annotating the same way I approach physical materials, I only annotate the second time around, when I am looking for something specific. I do however really enjoy the use of the search tool; makes finding words and making connections just so much easier, instead of having to re-read everything. All that being said, regardless of whether it be a new or used copy, or a physical book or an online file, annotation is not my cup of tea, and would not do it unless i absolutely had to.


My Thoughts on Annotation

I have never had much inclination towards writing in the margins of physical texts. While I have occasionally found annotations helpful to my understanding of some written works, adding them in myself feels like damaging the book. If I find something interesting or inspirational in a passage that I’m reading, I typically write it down somewhere else at length rather than adding my commentary into the pages of the book itself. I have not been required to annotate books in previous classes, though I have received assignments to make notes on photocopied pages, which I find less objectionable.

When reading a book, the thought never occurs to me to start making notes off in the margins, let alone dogearing pages; it seems unnecessary and disrespectful of the materials, and it’s perfectly easy to leave a bookmark in a place you want to return to later. This attitude may have risen from my habits earlier in life, which were quite different from those I have now; as a kid, I tended to be incautious with books, often writing or drawing in them, breaking the spine when opening them, eating on them, and carrying them around into places where they would be likely to get damaged. I ended up causing the premature deterioration of a lot of books that I would rather have intact today, and I still regret it. (I understand that not everyone who makes annotations is careless with books, I’m just explaining the formation of my own attitude towards treating books with care.)

Footnotes have proven useful to me in the past, though mainly in the case of books written in a foreign and/or archaic language. Notes made by translators and interpreters over the years are useful when trying to understand something written in a time and place very different from our own. However, in most cases these have been selected from a wider set of commentaries by the publisher as the most likely to enhance the reader’s comprehension of the text, and are formatted in a way that isn’t too distracting from the main text.

When reading a text to which annotations have been added by hand, one of the things that bothers me most is when text is frequently highlighted or underlined, which makes it difficult to read without noticing the annotations. While this might come in handy when attempting to abbreviate longer writings with a more informative tone, it is needlessly distracting in most other works.

Annotations to digital texts are a different matter. Many digital formats allow readers to make comments in a manner that is unobtrusive, but easy to view to those who are interested. They have the additional advantage of allowing for responses to people’s remarks, both for the writer of the original text (if they’re around to clarify) and for other commentators.

In conclusion, while I generally don’t go in for marginalia, I won’t discourage it as long as it is done in a way that doesn’t distract from the work itself.

Reading, Watching, Talking, but not Writing.

Books have always been my getaway. My safe place if you will. I have never really enjoyed reading books for school because it required that I slow down and actually think about what I was reading. I like watching the movie that plays in my head while I am reading. It is hardly enjoyable to pause the movie every 30 seconds to take notes. Hence I mostly audibly annotate. I do the same thing with my math homework. If I have a question about something, then I will just ask it. Or yell at the words in front of me. Of course, no one will answer and I will probably forget that I asked it. However, reading is a conversation between characters and the omnipresent reader. Thus it is important that the reader responds to the events. I simply don’t have the patience to write it down before moving on to what happens next.

I don’t like writing in books for the same reason that I strongly dislike it when people dog-ear pages (especially in books that don’t belong to them). I find it distracting and detrimental to the longevity of the story that lies within the binding. I would rather have a book that is falling apart with all of the pages intact. A book missing pages or having words that cannot be read is worse than having no book at all. But a book with a broken binding has been loved. That being said, I did render my copy of Hamlet quite difficult to read in some parts with the abundance of annotations within it. And the colors of the annotations.

I tend to color code everything. Including my annotations. I prefer pen because it won’t rub off the page and there are many more color options for it. If I use many colors, then I include a key somewhere as to what everything means. As far as content goes, I don’t usually annotate for me. So I tailor what I write to my intended audience. If it will be seen by my peers, I will steer towards the stereotypical expectations for annotations. For teachers, I try to come off as more insightful making connections across different forms of media or even within the text itself. If it is just for me, then the page will likely be blank. I will either go back and take separate notes or put post-it notes in. Color-coded based on their reason for being on the page of course.

We have reached a point where technology is preferred over paper. But I have to say that there is nothing like the feeling of a book in my hands. There is also a sense of connection that comes from actually holding the characters, their choices and the consequences of those choices in your hands. Like the Portkeys in the Harry Potter books, you aren’t going anywhere unless you are touching it ;D

Image result for portkey

Just My Thoughts

When I was a kid, I despised the idea of writing in books. I had a strong sense of the value of a physical book and thought that writing in them desecrated their intended purpose. I never thought about what valuable things you could put in the blank space in a novel because my experience stemmed from whatever mess elementary school kids added to their library books. I equated writing in a book to basically the same thing as spilling a drink or rubbing cheeto-stained fingers on it. I think I only ever wrote something in one of my books and I felt extremely guilty.

When reading works in high school I had no problem marking up the print of a poem. I understood that that was just a piece of paper. I circled keywords, I boxed keywords, and I underlined catching parts. I just never touched books. I remember my grades outrage when our tenth grade English teacher asked us to use post-its to mark up our thoughts. She treated it very strictly so I understood why people were upset. She was definitely looking for quantity to prove something over quality. I always had a lot of post-its and I appreciated that the post-its meant I didn’t have to ruin the beautiful, sacred books.

It wasn’t until later in high school that I started to critically examine the idea that a physical book wasn’t something you should mark up. I was always also really affronted when I saw those cool pieces of art made by carving up old books. I expressed this idea to a friend and she pointed out that the actual physical book didn’t really matter so much as the words in it, and those could always be reproduced. The value of a book was unscathed by using it to create something new like a sculpture.

I also started annotating without the strict requirement of the teacher later on. I used to be annoyed about the post-its because I thought I would remember all my thoughts about a book, and when I realized that was not true I wanted the mark up my work. I bought my own post-its, color-coded to denote specific themes that I usually cemented as I went along. Each post-it was pretty big so I normally divided them in half before jotting something quick down on the post-it. This was really where I developed my commentary style. I was reading a book I really hated in senior year, and I felt this gave me free license to talk trash. The main character was so painfully obnoxious that I would put down post-its just to call him out on his conceited, hyper-intellectual behavior. Eventually, it got to the point where I was cursing him out, and speaking directly to the author, and wondering how much of the protagonist’s personality was fiction and how much was him. The book was The World According to Garp, by the way.

Now that I mostly own the works I’m reading, I feel at liberty to mark them up according to my will. I still use color-coded post-its to denote themes in a work, but now they’re the tiny translucent ones and I just write my brief thoughts in the margin. I am still hugely inconsistent about what my markings mean. Some words I circle, some words I box, some lines I underline in a straight line, some lines I underline with a squiggly line. Generally, if I notice a word repeated that I feel is significant or two different words with the same feeling I will draw a line directly connecting them. My comments in the margin remain really informal. Sometimes I yell at the main character, sometimes I just write “haha” after a good joke. Sometimes I write really small and try to fit in an actually smart reaction I had to the work.

No matter what though, this lets the text becomes a live conversation between me and the author, which is gratifying and fun to look back at. It’s nice to believe that a work is not finished until you’ve read it and value your own thoughts on the matter in the same way you value the text.


I have never willingly written in a book. In high school, I spent many a free period arguing with English teachers about their childish requirements to write our “thoughts” and “feelings” about a text directly in the margins. I insisted that the same goal could be achieved by writing on a separate sheet of paper, while keeping the text squeaky-clean. Unfortunately, I would typically be forced to cave on behalf of my grade, with the final words of the teacher being “do it or else you won’t pass the assignment, because I said so.” But, my forced marginalia would be a reflection of my reluctancy- out of spite I would mock and dutifully criticize every line I could, my notes often filling the entire margins. Sometimes, I would write small enough so that on a page my marginalia contained more words than the text itself.

There is no good reason for marginalia. In fact, marginalia is bad. Let’s start with an analogy:

I’m in the Met. A certain painting strikes me in some way, and I want to express my opinion. To do this, I wouldn’t saunter on up to the painting and scribble on the white wall next to it. This would distract from the painting itself, as others could not see the work of art independent from my ugly scrawls. It also borders on vandalism. Sure, this isn’t quite the same as writing in a book, since books are mass-produced and owned by individuals, but the idea holds true. Whenever you write in a book, you take away from the original text because someone reading after you cannot block out your writing. There is a sort of purity in a clean book- a sort of truth. You see exactly what the author wanted you to see.

If you have a used book that you plan to return or pass on, the amount of arrogance or inconsideration (depending on intention) it takes to write marginalia is mind-boggling. If you think your writing adds something to the text that others after you should see, you are narcissistic. People read a book to read the book, not your writing. Frankly, no one cares what you have to say. I read Shakespeare to read Shakespeare, not some random note from some random guy pointing out that the way in which Shakespeare writes a line strikes him as “funny.” If you are simply writing notes without much thought as to who else will have the book after you, you are insensitive. Marginalia is disrespectful to people who read a text after you.

Marginalia is also disrespectful to the author. The author put out a work exactly how he wanted others to see it. Do you know how much time it takes to write a book? The effort it takes to make every line as good as you can? A book is a work of art like that painting in the Met. You wouldn’t taint the painting by writing next to it, so why do so many people taint books?

Marginalia is vandalism.


Some ‘side notes’…

For a book that is solely yours and will never be read by anyone else, knock yourself out with marginalia. In my opinion, you’ll only clutter things up more (both in the text and in your mind), but I’m in no position to stop you. However, if there is any chance whatsoever of someone reading the book after you, you should not write marginalia.

Highlighting, unlike marginalia, has its place in used/public books as well as personal books. It is a great way to condense textbooks and other scholarly texts, and can often help others. In a typical used book such as a novel, however, highlighting is not appropriate for reasons similar to marginalia; it is distracting, and no one else cares what you found interesting enough to highlight.

Digital marginalia that can appear by clicking a button is a great idea. This maintains the original text, keeps from distraction, and if someone doesn’t want to see your annotations, they just don’t press the button.


If you’re wondering whether or not you should write something in the margins of a book- just don’t.

Write? Write.

Growing up, you could always find me with my nose in a book. Yet, it never occurred to me to write in those books; I never had a reason to use the margins to annotate and analyze anything I was reading, and quite frankly I didn’t want to.  As someone who constantly overanalyzes everything, I enjoyed the fact that books were the one thing I didn’t feel I had to analyze.  This began to change in middle school, when analyzing books so unfortunately became part of my grade.

From middle school onward, most of my English classes seemed to revolve around annotating different works of literature, whether it be a poem, a piece of fiction, a nonfiction article, or in one somewhat odd case, a nutrition facts label. When my teacher taught my class about annotating, we learned the GRAM method.  With the GRAM method, I also learned a strong dislike for marginalia.  For each new page of writing, I was taught to “Give a statement,” “Restate an idea,” “Ask a question,” and “Make a connection.” All this mundane annotating took place on photocopied pieces of each work, in pencil, and was always turned in for a grade.

Now that I am no longer “forced” to annotate what I read, I realize that all that practice writing marginalia was not for nothing.  While I do not annotate works of fiction any longer, I do dog ear pages throughout the books I read that contain information I may want to refer to later in the book.  In regard to readings for class, I do my fair share of marking up the text.  I’ll print myself a copy of the text and proceed to highlight key themes, draw arrows connecting ideas to supporting evidence, and ironically, I still use the GRAM method in the margins, although they now go much more in depth than the superficial GRAMS I use to do for a grade.  These annotations I keep solely for myself, mainly to keep up the façade that I still strongly dislike annotating (not really).  In reality, I think everyone should have their own annotations because each work can be interpreted differently by different people.

My Annotations

The process of annotating is one that I associate purely with academics. Throughout middle and high school, my English teachers would do random “annotation checks” where they would walk around the class to see if our books were marked up, and then give us a grade. This annoyed me, and I now have a very negative association with annotating, but it did drive into my mind a helpful process to use when reading texts. Underlining and starring important phrases or events in a book or play made me slow down my reading pace, as I had to determine what was happening and then react to it. Stars, brackets, and underlining also made it easier to find quotes and evidence to use for papers. If I did not understand something, I put question marks next to what confused me, and it allowed me to form questions for class. I wrote simple reactions (sad/happy face, ugh, ew, no, yes) in the margins, and also wrote short summaries at the end of some pages or chapters to help me mull through and determine the important parts of what I had read. I also added comments from class discussions in the margins to enhance my understanding of the text.

When reading for pleasure, I rarely, if ever, annotate. The process of annotating, at least for me, disrupts the flow of reading and takes the joy out of the process in the first place. If I enjoy a specific phrase or sentence, I might underline it, but it is uncommon that I take the time to do that. I want to experience the book as I read it, and not have to worry about underlining phrases or looking for particular imagery. For some people, annotating might add to their reading experience, but because I have such a negative association with annotations, it does not. If I want to analyze a book, I will annotate; if reading for the sake of reading, I will leave the book untouched.

I Usually Don’t Have a Pen on me…

In truth, I rarely annotate pieces of literature, mainly because I focus my attention towards comprehension of stylistic elements and perceived author’s intent. However, I do annotate other pieces of writing occasionally, particularly when I am reading to keep myself informed. Sometimes, when I find a sentence or phrase that resonates with me in a newspaper, I underline or highlight that part of the passage, sometimes topping it off with a few words in the margin to help jog my memory as to why this sentence/phrase was so significant. I do admit that this practice helps me retain the information, probably because it converts my initial reactions in reading into written words, making them invulnerable from the oblivion that is a busy teenager’s short term memory. Additionally, I appreciate pieces that already have writing in the margins, primarily because it provides a commentary on the writing that emulates the type of interaction and analysis that two friends reading a book together would have (if the annotation is done well, that is).

Nothing is quite like some hastily scrawled, broken sentences in blue ink. And while such writing is more common for my notes in classes, those two worlds sometimes connect, such as in my Creative Writing class, which requires me to make notes on my observations and thoughts as they relate to the current device or method that was being studied. In doing this, I annotate pieces of writing like poetry. Granted, it sounds lazy to claim that I only annotate when I am forced to in school, but when I read for pleasure I honestly don’t feel an urge to annotate. Maybe it was because of my ignorance of the uses of annotation for much of my childhood, but for one reason or another I would rather focus on digesting the content as I experience it directly, rather than sequestering a part of my analysis onto paper for another time. Furthermore, I find that annotations can easily become an interruption, especially when the piece can be interpreted widely and a certain thought written down may inhibit a scholar who might be trying to read a piece in a different perspective. Taking in the material as my eyes convert what the text means is pure and effective, and that is simply how I feel.

Chicken Scratch

My methodology in terms of annotation is largely due to my seventh grade English teacher. I remember her lesson vividly. Circle and define the words you don’t know. Underline key phrases and concepts. Finally, write any opinions you may have to the side of the text. While I follow the majority of these steps, it is the last step, the inscription of my own opinions, that is jarringly lacking from my own marginalia.

I suppose I should first explain that I am anything but a traditionalist when it comes to annotation. I refuse to blemish the appearance of newly printed or well-loved library books. I write all of my annotations in a notebook kept neatly next to me as I read. I can accredit this to my generally atrocious handwriting. I would hate to rent a book and see my marginalia all over it. Arrows strewn across the page linking words to their definitions. Sloppy underlines threading below (and sometimes through) the words that they are supposed to be highlighting. I just can’t do that to books.

There is, however, an exception to this rule. I have no problem whatsoever defacing handouts. I write all over them without a care in the world. Why is there such a discrepancy between books and a Xeroxed-copy of the same material? This may be due to a feeling of ownership that I feel I have with Xeroxed-copies. More than likely though, it stems from my feeling that handouts don’t have the same kind of permanence as books. A handout is likely to remain in two places: in my hands or in the recycling bin. A book, however, is more likely to remain in circulation. I would never throw a book away, but rather would donate it or gift the text to a friend.

This falls perfectly in line with one of the most striking things about my own annotations: I rarely take the time to write down my own opinions. The idea of marginalia being a type of delayed conversation between the author, the reader, and readers to come is particularly interesting when it comes to my case, as I never involve myself in this conversation in the first place. I don’t write down my thoughts on the page but rather exclaim them in my head or even out loud sometimes (I promise I’m generally normal). I never really pondered my reasoning for this until now. I think that it generally arises from an irrational fear of others judging my marginalia.  It’s one thing for others to see words that you defined and phrases that you found to be important. It is an entirely different thing, however, to truly write down your opinions on the page. This form of self-identification scares me a little bit. I certainly have lots of opinions but am not as willing to key others in on them.

If I do ever succeed in making my mark in the world, I guess it won’t be found haphazardly scribbled in the margins of a book.



Write Here, Write Now

Never have I ever been morally conflicted about whether to write in a book. I just do – I write. The way I see it is that there are usually thousands of copies of any given book, unscathed by marginalia, and it can do no harm to leave your mark on one of the copies’ pages. I prefer pen (ballpoint to avoid smudging), although pencil will do if that’s what I have. There have also been multiple occasions when I have written in textbooks – even rentals (forgive me). I will say, however, that post-it notes are blasphemous. It pains me to imagine taking the time to read and think and write, yet to write on a frivolous piece of paper that will either be lost or thrown away. Ink on paper is bolder, better.

I began annotating in middle school and I still write in books for class assignments, while jotting down important talking points and questions in a notebook. When I read for fun, however, I write only in the book. After I have finished the entire text, I’ll usually make a note, either in the notes app on my phone or in my journal, about my favorite moments and quotations. Mostly, I do this so I can recommend the book to a friend or just share my favorite parts of it (speaking of which, I highly recommend The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu… one of my favorite lines reads, “To linger in the longing, the loss, the yearning, is a way of feeling the rich and embroidered texture of life, the torn cloth of our world that is endlessly being ripped and rewoven.”).

Some of my favorite texts to annotate are poetry, plays, and passages from the Bible. In all three, a lot of my comments turn into questions, and they often go unanswered. I have a sort of shorthand – hearts near things I either relate to or just find beautiful, a half-moon shape (a circle, half shaded in) to portray a notable juxtaposition or contradiction, far too many arrows connecting ideas with my own thoughts, and a fair share of expletives that I refuse to say out loud. I try to circle words I don’t already know in hopes that I’ll find the energy later to look them up. Oh, and a lot of “lol”-s in moments of irony and “:’)”-s on more profound occasions.

I guess if I ever second guess myself about writing on a page or not, I think of the Half-Blood Prince from the Harry Potter series and think (a bit too optimistically) that maybe my thoughts are the key to someone else’s future success. So, in a way, I am writing for a future audience, although I don’t always realize it. Mostly, though, I’m writing for my future self, and hoping that someday I’ll reread and be able to remember the confusion, laughter, and the rare epiphanies that the first read unveiled.

(An additional thought: While pondering this topic after a rehearsal, I started to think about how much I annotate music as well. It reminded me of the notion of reading in one language and writing in another. Often when I write on my sheet music, I write reminders to myself about what sort of tone should be expressed or how to convey a certain message with my playing or singing. Usually, I write in ways that speak to me more directly, rather than the symbols and Italian that are printed on the score. I write a lot of adjectives to remind me of the mood of whatever story is being told, so that I can easily assume that expressive role.)