We pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

– from “Marginalia” by Billy Collins

From the looks of a lot of home libraries I’ve been in, it would be presumptuous of me to start right in with “how to mark a book.” I might as well start in with “how to destroy your garden.” Most people would never mark a book. Most people teach their children not to mark or draw in books. (I think that coloring books are meant to wean us from marking books. They’re a kind of nicotine patch for preschoolers.) Once they start school, children must lug around books all day and read them, but they must never mark in them. At the end of the term, students are fined if the books have marks. So we have a nation that equates marking in books with sin and shame.

To most adults, I think, books are rarefied or holy, perhaps too holy to interact with. Books crouch on shelves like household gods, keeping ignorance at bay. A small library on a home’s main floor may amount to a false front, a prop to give neighbors a certain impression of their host’s intellectual life. Neighbors may get the idea that he holds a reservoir of learning that could pour out of his mouth at any twist of the conversation.

But the presence of a book may have nothing to do with its impact on its owner. A lot of people never really get mad at a book. Few people ever throw a book, kiss a book, cry over a book, or reread a page in a book more than once or twice, if that. Some people never use a dictionary to find out what a big word in a book means. As a species, people don’t interact with books much.

[marked page]I’m not suggesting that you mark every book you own, any more than I would suggest that my dog mark every tree he sniffs. But you should be free to mark up most books in the most worthwhile core of your collection. My dog has his favorites, and so should you.

I mark in (i.e., annotate) a book for four reasons. First,  I annotate a book to create trails as if I were the first person to hike through a particular forest. I may want to read the text, or part of a text, more than once. (Why else would I keep the book after I’ve read it?) During my second reading, my first reading’s marginal comments and summaries quickly give me the gist of my first reading so I can take advantage of my second, which has its own charms.  It’s like I’ve blazed a trail for my future self.

(It’s funny how people and bookstores price used books on sites like Alibris.com and Amazon.com. The fewer the marks, the pricier the book! This is backward thinking, so take advantage of the bargains. People love the idea of a pristine forest, but wouldn’t you compromise some of that pristine-ness for a well-marked trail if you wished to hike in that forest?)

Second, I annotate a book to interact with the author – to hold up my end of the conversation.  Without annotating, books are like lectures.  I make reading a conversation instead by jotting down my reactions as well as new thinking a passage leads me to. When I read or refer to the book again, my earlier, written realizations or ideas often mean more to me than the book’s text.

Third, I annotate a book to learn what the book teaches, and maybe not just the book’s explicit content. By the time I break in certain books, I’ve gone beyond just the book’s facts and opinions.  I’ve developed new interests or considered new ideas. Maybe I’ve learned more about myself.  (Books often meet me in ways the author couldn’t have anticipated, though an author who writes a penetrating and nuanced book provides such experiences to many readers.) By annotating, the book becomes my territory, to return to my dog and his trees. In fact, a book sometimes becomes part of me in some way.

Finally, I annotate my books to learn to write, or at least to learn how a sentence or paragraph was written. My improvement in writing and in literary analysis involves close readings of writers I admire. There are patterns in the use of nouns, pronouns, verbs and other parts of speech; there are patterns in syntax and in sentence variation; and there are patterns in sound devices, such as alliteration and assonance. I mark these with different symbols or colors, and I connect these dots. Patterns emerge, and style emerges from patterns. To read like a writer, I have to annotate like one, too.

How to annotate a book

Speaking of style, you’ll develop your own annotation style very quickly.  But like a writing style, your annotating style can always be improved even if your style works for you.  So here are some ideas for annotating.

First off, let’s be clear: where does one annotate? In the book’s text and in its margins.  Interlineations are notes you insert between the text’s lines (difficult to do in most books).  Marginalia are notes you write in the text’s margins.

Use marks.  Use question marks to show what is unclear or confusing. Use exclamation marks or smiley faces to show your agreement or delight. Employ other marks, and invent still others with their own significance!

Marginal comments serve many purposes.  Summarizing a passage’s information in the margins can help you find information quickly and can help you go beyond a first-draft reading quickly the next time you read a passage.  (Summarizing in the margins means you’ll never accidentally separate your summaries from the book summarized, as you might if you wrote your summaries in a notebook or somewhere else.)  Stating your agreements and disagreements with the text helps keep your reading more conversational and may give you material for use in later assignments – essays and discussions, for instance – if you’re reading for a class or book group.  Reflecting on associations you’re making with the text – associations such as other books and movies, personal memories, and current events the text reminds you of – makes the reading more personal and more valuable to you in the long run.  Your book’s margins may begin to resemble a shorthand journal or diary!  Associations, such as a song, a dream, or a stray memory, may seem random, but they may carry more psychic weight than you may realize at first.  When you connect the dots during a subsequent reading, those connections can be powerful!  (I love to write about how my experiences in reading a single text differ over time.)

Highlight, bracket, or underline text you think will be the most significant to you when you read those pages again later.  Consider labeling the text that you highlighted, bracketed, or underlined: you’d be leaving a better trail for yourself for subsequent readings.

Circle words you’re not familiar with, look them up, and write their definitions in the margins beside them.  Consider creating on a blank page in the book’s front or back matter a running glossary complete with the page numbers where the new words can be found in context.

Mark and label a work’s literary and rhetorical devices.  This will assist you in any assignment involving literary analysis by helping you to discover how the author gets across his material.  It may also lead to an appreciation of the writer’s craft that could improve your own writing style!  You may wish to use different shapes (triangles, rectangles, ovals) or colors to mark different literary devices.  Draw a quick legend to later remind yourself of what each shape or color stands for.

Make impromptu graphic organizers – tables, diagrams, and the like – in the margins to summarize your understanding of complicated passages.  That way, you won’t have to learn the material all over again in subsequent readings.

Cross-reference topics and ideas that recur in the text.  If you’re interested in references to tragedy in a book about the history of theater, for instance, write the page number of the most important text on tragedy in the margins beside the book’s other references to tragedy.  That most important reference to tragedy would also be a place to jot down the page numbers where all of the other references to tragedy you’ve discovered can be found.  (You might even put letters such as T, M, or B after those page numbers to indicate that the information is at the top, middle or bottom of the page in question.)  You’ll be able to quickly find related material the next time you use the book!

The next logical step when you begin to cross-reference is to start an index in the back or to supplement the book’s existing index.  (Click here for an example of an index I put together for one of my core books.)  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve referred back to my own index to find things in a book.  The index sometimes also develops into a shorthand list of things that I found helpful or inspiring in a book, so my indexes have sometimes served me as alphabetized lists of writing prompts.

Click here for an outline that includes these annotation methods and a few others.

Here are two other resources for learning how to make a satisfying mess out of your books:

“How to Mark a Book,” an essay by Mortimer J. Adler

“All Books are Coloring Books,” a book review of The Art of Reading: a Handbook on Writing by Roger J. Ray and Ann Ray

14 thoughts on “How to mark a book

  1. [This comment is really several comments left on this blog’s old comment system, Haloscan. I’ve started each comment here with its author’s name.]

    James
    I completely disagree with the idea of annotation personally though I do see its appeal. The difference personally between me and the Writer of this text is the fact that I read to experience things. I read to become entranced and connected to the world that is created by the author. I read to enjoy the literature. Where as the writer reads simply to have a conversation.vI believe that if I am seeking a conversation then I will read the likes of books on philosophy, and culture of which the point of reading is in all reality is to learn other perspectives and as such have a conversation.
    July 10, 2012, 10:29:22 PM EDT – Reply

    Peter (not the post’s author)
    A book has no meaning if it is stated for you clear as day. What makes a book meaningful is the time you spend, even after reading, pondering what the message was. And how can find this meaning without annotating? When you have finished the book and have an overall idea you can look back through the book to see your previous insight.
    April 30, 2012, 7:06:51 PM EDT – Reply

    Peter
    I love the effect you describe, Joan. I use some stickies, but for a different purpose: to keep track of pages when I’m writing about a book or when I’m giving a talk using a book. I leave the stickies in, and I’m glad later because the pages I’ve marked with them are often my entrance back into the book.
    May 1, 2009, 9:49:46 PM EDT – Reply

    Joan
    I have managed to split the difference. Post-it makes slender vinyl pointy markers which I use for marking books. They mark the passage and are long enough to stick out as an identifying tag. They are removable and re-useable, which appeals to both my slim pocketbook, and my changing tastes. They work for library books if I love a particular quote and cringe at the folded down corner. They work even better for books I own. One can even write on them..in Smurf type. Granted, some of my book favs are way over-feathered with these things. I should really cull some out before someone mistakes a book for a pinata.
    May 1, 2009, 12:45:23 PM EDT – Reply

    Peter
    Bob, joe, Zippy — thanks very much for your comments!

    Fred, I like the early stuff, too, and I like it better when I add stuff each trip back. It’s like watching my mind change.

    nathan and Fred, you’ve really contributed to my own margins here. I love your sentiments and how you’ve expressed them.
    April 30, 2009, 8:02:31 PM EDT – Reply

    nathan
    Ah, a kindred spirit! You’re clearly onto something (just look at our comments so far!): if marking books isn’t seen as tromping on the sacred, it’s often seen as homage to unnecessary gods. But like you, Peter (I should be kind and say not TOO much like you), I’m a compulsive book-marker, constantly spilling my neuroses into margins.

    But with some method, the madness is well worth it. I’ve found that going back over a well-marked book again is like re-entering a conversation rather than a monologue. The notes and symbols act like hypnosis – help me ease back into experiences of reading I would otherwise have forgotten. After all, let’s not forget that good books are events, not objects!

    In that respect, marginal notes are like photographs — clumsy ways of recording events that’ve mattered in our lives. The question, again, is whether we are to photograph the sacred at all. Frankly, I think that’s the least we can do.
    April 30, 2009, 9:36:46 AM EDT – Reply

    fred
    The books that impacted me most are those I took notes from or made notes in long ago. Gives the word “imprinting” a new meaning–to create permanent loops of thought by the act of eye, heart, mind and hand at the point of inspiration on the page.
    April 30, 2009, 7:26:14 AM EDT – Reply

    Zippy Chance
    I enjoy reading books for the hell of reading them – I can get the general feel or meaning of a book without annotating the text, sure. But, going back and marking a book (especially for a class assignment)DOES help. I don’t necessarily mark text when I read books outside of school. So I can see Joe’s point of view, but when it comes to studying text academically, close reading is the best strategy to use.
    August 31, 2008, 9:20:51 PM EDT – Reply

    joe
    i think close reading helps. bye!
    June 24, 2008, 1:51:19 AM EDT – Reply

    Bob
    I disagree with this essay. Personally, I feel that if you need to write down ideas in a book just to remember them the next time through, then the book is just too convoluted. A book needs to tell you its meaning, not give you a bunch of sentences and tell you to figure it out for yourself. If a book’s meaning isn’t clear, it isn’t worth being read.
    June 6, 2008, 9:46:37 PM EDT – Reply

    Peter
    Thank you so much, Nicole! And thank you, everyone else, for commenting here. It’s really gratifying!
    February 29, 2008, 12:50:07 AM EST – Reply

    Nicole
    You are a hilarious writer. I think my kids might actually finally understand the benefits of annotation after reading this. If nothing else, they’ll have a great example of how you can use a humorous tone to impart a serious message. Thanks for such a fun, fun read!
    February 28, 2008, 11:06:09 PM EST – Reply

    Brandi
    I am sorry, but it sounds inordinately ignorant to say (out loud!) that reading and analyzing literature is “bull,” and a “waste of time.”
    One must read to remember; otherwise, one is wasting his or her own time. Interacting with text is necessary. Analyzing literature is not meant as a torture. Such skills allow a reader to better interpret the world (and others) around him. Period.
    Read often, and mark up your books. Highlight passages and respond to them. How can anyone ever write a paper about something he or she has not annotated? How can one expect to recall significant moments (and the details and support necessary to make any kind of argument) without highlighting and annotation? Stop being lazy and start reading responsibly.
    July 28, 2007, 12:06:05 PM EDT – Reply

    SarahJ
    love this post! i also mark up my books, and have no qualms about doing it. It helps me appreciate, and find what I’m looking for later. If it’s a good book, or there’s something in there that I want for whatever reason, i will be back.
    June 23, 2007, 3:11:03 PM EDT – Reply

    Dave
    (And to anyone inclined to argue with me about the preceding comment, I’d encourage you to read George Steiner on the tyranny of the secondary, in his great – and short – book Real Presences).
    April 9, 2007, 12:07:36 PM EDT – Reply

    Dave
    Joe, that sounds grim. You have my sympathies. I love to read, but I hate having to analyze literature. It’s a waste, all right: that’s time and mental energy I should be spending creating my own literature – often in reaction to what I’ve just read.
    April 9, 2007, 12:04:33 PM EDT – Reply

    Joe Sip
    I feel that this is bull and useless. I am visiting your site for an AP English project where I have to close read the Heart Of Darkness and fill out index cards for it. I feel like im wateing my time and can’t enjoy reading a book without cncentrating on whether I need to use that or if that phrase was important.
    March 28, 2007, 5:52:37 PM EDT – Reply

    Peggy
    Thank you for this very informative piece. You’ve answered many questions I didn’t even know I had but realised I’d always wanted to know. I immediately printed it out so that I can continue to use it as reference material. Thanks for taking the time out to share your own knowledge and experience.
    December 7, 2006, 11:16:26 AM EST – Reply

  2. I can understand wherr james is coming from, as reading a book is a form of “getting away from it all” but writing could also help you analyze what is going on, what you believe is going to happen, what wont happen, so on, so fourth. I constantly find myself analyzing what the character says, “body language” ,ect. I also feel that finding the literary elements and also new words could help a person open up to a whole new vocabulary, writing style (grammar, discovering elements,ect.) , and better understanding of the english language (or perhaps any other kind of language a book is in) itself. I know this first hand because i would look up or consult an englisg teacher if i didnt understand a word, phrase, or element in what i was reading. By 7th grade i wasreading in a college level. (If anything is spelled wrong its becauseim tired and im typing on a small screen haha)

  3. As someone who keeps books to later reference, I myself annotate. What works for some; however, does not always work for others. So it seems to me that the decision of whether or not to annotate depends on the purpose of the reading, and really just comes down to personal preference. Conclusion to which I have come… to each his own.

  4. I love annotating text as a means for deeper involvement. As a middle school teacher I have to give my kids post-its to emulate the experience- personally I use annotations and post-its together for best effect. The best thing annotation has given me, though, is a glimpse into the mind of my mother. Being the recipient of many of her academic texts and journals annotated throughout by her is a legacy I treasure!

    1. Cate, every now and then I have a silly thought: what will my heirs and assigns do with my annotated books? How cool that you value your mother’s annotated texts. I’m not sure the people closest to me would have the same interest in my texts that you have in your mother’s.

      I should direct that my books go to one of those book giveaway initiatives I’ve read about in the paper. It would be like scattering my ashes.

  5. As I was reading the comments on this, I noticed a lot of people were bashing annotating. One particular person said “I feel that if you need to write down ideas in a book just to remember them the next time through, then the book is just too convoluted.” Think of it this way; say you just met a person, and you start to converse. You knew this person was going to mean something to you and that you would meet again in the future. You two go your separate ways, and don’t meet again for a year. Are you going to remember everything you two conversed about the first time you met, or even the important parts? Most likely not, unless the conversation was in writing. Now take a book, and read it. Now reread it a year later. You most likely are not going to remember how this book made you feel last time you read it, anything you learned about the book, or anything that this book has taught you, leaving you with the same questions you had the first time. To me that seems like more of a waste of time, because then you have to keep stopping to look up a word in the dictionary, or keep stopping to think about a specific sentence or paragraph. However, If in the conversation upon meeting, you wrote down the important parts of the conversation, you would not have to start all over from the beginning. That is just how I look at it, bash it if you must, but first really, REALLY think about it.

    1. Kaarin, your comment made me see in a new way how interactive even printed text can be. When we read the same words at different points of life, they are different words. Part of that difference is part of what makes them the same words — the memory of reading them the first time — a memory I don’t experience on my first read. Books gather layers of meaning. Years of liturgy, I guess, and on the private side of it, devotional reading, are good examples of this kind of multiple close readings.

Comments are closed.