Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Highlighter and A Pencil

For far too many years, I had an almost pathological aversion to annotating my books. Was it because I wanted to resell my textbooks at the end of the semester? I did need to scrape up every penny I could find to pay for those books, and many times, I would rush to the library to check the course books out before anyone else got them because there were no pennies left to scrape up. However, the answer is no, I kept every book I purchased during high school and college. When the semester ended, I simply had grown to love them all too much. I’m the guy who at the end of my ninth grade year, was sickened by the sight of my fellow students burning their books in a bonfire at the bus stop.

The reason I could not mark up my books for so many years was that I did not want to mess up the pages with yellow highlighter and penciled notes. That is not what you do with holy objects, and to me, books are sacred.

So why am I a committed annotator now? I got over my trepidation and changed my thinking.

Reading a book, indeed, reading any text is an engagement of minds: reader and writer. It is a discussion, an argument between two intellects across time and space. One of the parties might even be dead and therefore, it is an argument that transcends the grave. The book might be ancient, but that is why when we write about literature, we write in the present tense. The poem may be crumbling, but the analysis, the discussion, is happening now.

My engagement with my books started tentatively. I used a highlighter, and I made the marks infrequently but quickly before the gods of literature struck me down for blasphemy. “You did that to my book?!” I thought I heard them scream. I used different colors of highlighters before settling on yellow only. Other colors are too garish, like a literary strip club on the edge of town. Yellow makes the text stand out without ostentatious linear flamboyance.

My next foray was to put a tiny pencil mark in the margin, a “yes,” or “what?” or “huh?” Yeah, I was a real, high-brow annotator.

It took a while, but I finally began writing definitions of unfamiliar words, background data and dates, and questions and comments on nearly every page, filling the margins on all sides until the text overflowed. I took the words apart, I rubbed the pages between my palms like Play-Doh, I lived inside the paragraphs and did not clean up the pizza boxes. I made the book mine.

Although I don’t think I need to worry, anyone who covets my library after I’m gone will find only over-used, well-worn books on the shelves. And many of the annotations will make sense only to me, because I wrote the notes to myself. It is an exclusive club with just two members: the writer and me.

One must engage with the text. Highlight main characters, interesting dialogue, a potent image. Also, yellow in unfamiliar words, names, historical events, and items needing further research. Use yellow only; highlighting a book need not look rainbow pretty, although different colors could be used for different categories of notations.

Use a pencil to make notes in the margins: dates, definitions, questions, your thoughts, what the passage reminds you of, and anything else the book fires up in your imagination. Use pencil because you can erase. Different readings of the same book can provoke different thoughts and ideas at different points in your life. Leave some space for the future, I always say, as well as for maturity and autumnal reminiscence, which is quite different from juvenilia jangling.

And what if money is so tight that one must sell the books at the end of the semester? Or what if one cannot buy them in the first place and must use library copies?

Use Post-It notes, those sticky squares of paper that peel off easily without permanent damage to the page. The larger sizes allow plenty of room for annotations while the adhesive lets you affix the square right to the relevant line or paragraph. Yes, the squares could lose their stickiness and fall out of the book, but there are not a lot of other options for annotation. You simply must get your hands and the page dirty.

Really and truly, a reader must fully engage with the text she studies. This is not about light reading or reading for fun, although I often mark up those books, too. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool reader, a student of everything, annotate, deconstruct, disassemble, pick apart everything you read. Pick the word-bones clean and fully link up with the writer’s mind. You, the writer, the book: locked in battle, deep in discussion, maybe even kindred spirits shouting “Amen, Alleluia, Yes it is!” to the literary gods in heaven. There is no better life of the mind, no other Holy Grail of discourse than to read and note and cogitate.

Engage the book, mark it up, dare to annotate. If you exhaust your copy, fill every margin with notes, ideas, questions, cover every sentence in florescent yellow, it’s okay. As the ad slogan says, “Don’t worry; we’ll make more.”

Books, that is.


  1. Paul thanks for these thoughts. I'm teaching "Paradise Lost" right now to my 11th/12th grade class. The kids were shocked to see the condition of my copy of the book: highlighted, penciled, and abounding with sticky notes of all shapes & sizes. It started a great discussion on your topic of the day! Also, I kept all of my college books. I have my huge $200 Complete Works of Shakespeare book, which my husband still teases me about. (It's so beautiful & amazing, how could I ever part with it?)

  2. It is always amazing to me, Lori, how our students are so mesmerized by our scholarship and preparation. Mine always wanted to see my notes, and never failed to ask me "How do you know that?" I keep telling them that a teacher is a life-long student. We are never done learning.

    As for the books we cannot part with, I know exactly what you mean. I cannot bear to throw a book away, even some trashy airport paperback. When I was a poor student, I once found a stack of hardcover books in a parking lot where I worked. My co-workers thought I was nuts when I loaded them into my car. Who would throw away good books?!

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Hi Paul,

    I agree it is a good thing to be an active reader and mark-up books with notes to yourself but sometimes you don't want to do that. I read books from the county library quite often and librarians tend to frown on that type of thing (and besides you would probably not see your notes again).

    For those occasions when I want to take notes and not mark up the book, I keep a small notebook next to my reading chair. Not quite as convenient but it works.

    Disadvantage is that it is more work since you may want to add something about the content provoked the note but the advantage is it is easier to find a note on the pad than one you made in the book and need to look for.

  4. Yeah, Jack, I think we should probably avoid marking up library books. I know I don't want to wind up on some librarian's wall with the "Have you seen this man" caption under my picture.

    You make a good suggestion with the notebook. Others call it a daybook, but that applies mostly to writing down favorite quotes. I personally use the Post-It note method on library books, but I always feel so disheartened when I must remove the notes before returning it to the library. Oh well. Helene Hanff said once that she never bought a book she hadn't already read. So we read them from the library, and if we want them for keeps, we hit the Amazon page.

    Thanks for the comment.

  5. Thank you for giving me the courage to mark up the incredibly expensive stack of books I had to buy for this semester but already know I'm not going to sell back anyway. I'm grabbing my yellow highlighter right now! I always marked my books with pencil with the idea I'd later erase my to sell the book, but 1. Too lazy/too much and 2. I want to keep my dear book!

    The notebook-thing I do too, when I have a book that's not mine (it's a great thing to copy entire passages because all the information is just SO IMPORTANT) or when I'm writing a paper. It helps me to extract the exact information I want to write with.

    Anyway, thank you. i'm back to highlighting now.

  6. Great post! Thank you so much!
    You've basically strengthened the thoughts which kept me awake tonight. It is 4am and I feel content now, knowing someone else thinks the way I do.



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