How to mark a book

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 and 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

The story of my birth

[Hotel Chamberlin postcard]

Each year my high priestess, not without blood, phones to recite the story of my birth. We danced by the Chamberlin against a night of few stars, she says, colonnade women and poplin men in brick-soled bucks on bluegrass. Heat lightning tugged at tankers in a dark offing.

We were at a point; you’ve seen the Chamberlin from a skipjack, rising and falling against sky and Hampton Roads, respectively; well, we rose and fell in the barest swell, I’m sure, the Navy Band’s brass and dress whites narrowly ruffled in black water. It was hot, a solstice hot, not unrelenting but apogeic; I think a June night is an anomaly and a celebration, brief as it is, and a summer night young enough to admit that summer hasn’t come, and 1957, too, the boom year of baby boom babies, the height of something you were born to fall from, and the top of a clock; I wanted you born by midnight.  I didn’t want you born on the thirteenth.

To the side, in a green, cotton dress, your grandmother, just five years older than you are today, her hair a black and silver you never knew, talked with her friends. I have never thought of her with either friends or dark hair, I think to myself, but later I realize that I had thought last year when Mom had called how I had never thought of her that way; this year, though – I think for the first time – I think: nor have I ever thought of her in a cotton dress.

Between numbers, after months of expansion, the contractions, the clock hands climbing and not falling, the heat a haze and not unrelenting – a presence and a midwife, really – and your father, excusing himself from his fellows, took me by an elbow, if you can picture that.  His long, black Studebaker bent around Newport News Point to 50th Street and the hospital, ablaze above the James River and its own silent ships.  The doctor and I worked to have you born today; your father, outside, rocked on his heels.  11:43.  There you were, and she hangs up again.

I look out my window, appeased.  I cradle the phone.  I can see the same moon, now an infant, that floated below those ruffled colonnades.  But I reflect that the hospital is now a parking lot, and my June nights have become like asphalt, too, expanded and contracted by a hundred solstices, buckled like lips turned upwards for their mother’s kiss.