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.)

Some Marginal Thoughts on Annotation (Leah Christman)

I have never annotated. At the very least, I have never done it without being forced to do so; whether it be marking up a Xerox-copied installment of Great Expectations upon which a grade relies, or tediously pouring over a tired edition of Morrison’s Song of Solomon to mark motifs in AP English, this practice has always been something to dread.

For someone who regularly wishes to shut their brain off due to the constant and exhausting mass of whirling thoughts, this might seem odd. Is annotation not supposed to act as a release for the overwhelmed mind? A means of putting thoughts and responses down on paper, for the sake of perceived dialogue between the author, the self, or some future person? While I can see the idea posed in these queries, to me, annotating has always seemed an extra, unnecessary step. The author writes a work so their thoughts may be absorbed by another mind. I read, react (sometimes visibly), mull it over for moments, days, or weeks, and wait for the opportunity to discuss with someone in real time. In fact, I often beg my friends to read things with me, so that I may talk with them about it, teasing out mysteries and sharing reactions together. In-the-moment, face-to-face dialogue is that which is most cathartic to me: seeing and hearing how others react to thoughts of other people, and observing how that influences their own world view, provides the biggest thrill.

To put my thoughts in margins is, in my eyes, to marginalize them. What I want is to take my thoughts, that have been influenced by the insights of an author, and turn them into something new through others and the practices they themselves adopt through their world outlook. This seems far more effective, and meaningful, to the legacy of the author’s thoughts, and those thoughts of future, readers, than a few physical scribbles pushed to the side of text on a page.

To put these thoughts digitally seems to have even less meaning. Sure, it opens up more space for more ideas, which may change a future reader’s perception of a text. But it almost seems like interrupting an author right in the middle of a point: to say instead, “Wait! Hold everything. Readers must hear what I think before they proceed with this author and make up their own mind”. The impatience implied here is a bit frustrating, as it gives no one time to process anything in the way it is supposed to be processed, disrupting my own mental flow and that of others. Discussing in real time gives thoughts room to breathe, as well as an increased ability to make a change in some way.

These, of course, are only my opinions. Having no right to judge the practices of others, I am willing to be swayed. After all, the whole point of reading and having a dialogue is to open one’s mind. As such, I am open to having a change of heart regarding the realm of annotation.

On Annotation

Recently, I have taken the time to reflect on annotation. I annotate a lot. Generally, it follows predictable patterns: red ink means I have written it on my own time, blue ink means I heard it from a teacher or classmate. I annotate more on informational writing than on fictional works, and more when reading on a computer than not. Obviously, I will still write in books, but as someone with notoriously bad handwriting who hated having to fit long rants in tiny margins, using computers to annotate is amazing. The note is always readable, and on some programs, I can leave notes in a separate comments section, so it doesn’t clutter the page.

Although I understand how I annotate, what I don’t understand is why. It’s certainly not for anyone else to read; I get embarrassed when others read my annotations because they are often informal and about my personal views (I almost included a picture with this post of my annotations but felt too self-conscious and removed it). I often do it to help in my understanding of a work and to prove to myself that I am paying attention as I read; when I cannot annotate, I feel I absorb less of what I am reading.

But even that seems too official a reason for my annotation. What I write isn’t always intelligent. It’s often just inane commentary. Maybe I do it to entertain myself, like doodling. Either way, I know annotation is important to my reading process, and I’m grateful for the digitization of media for making it easier to annotate.