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.