Annotating Books: A Discussion

Today we are tackling a topic that can create many heated discussions amongst book nerds. Perhaps, it creates more passionate feelings than dog-earing pages instead of using a bookmark! Of course, I'm talking about annotating books.


There are many different opinions on what annotating books entails. Personally, I write all of my thoughts down separately in a notebook or in a blog post draft in order to help gather my thoughts for a review. Some people put post-it tabs or book darts on their books to mark important pages. I've also seen some people place sticky notes in the book to write their thoughts, though I personally would find those annoying for rereads. The last group of annotators do what some find unspeakable... they write in their books-sometimes in pen. Oh my!


I'm told I scribbled and defaced books as a little kid quite often. However in my big-kid life, I can easily say I've never written in a book-not even in pencil. In fact I've often berated one of my high school English teachers for having written in his books! I apparently appointed myself the book police. You could even see me giving people repulsed side-eyes for shoving paperbacks into book bags unprotected, as if the way someone (mis)treated their books was any of my business!


Mind you, it was during this time in my life that I discovered the world of Booktube. This discovery has been equally a wonderful and terrible thing for me. To preface, the community has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. I would not have fallen so deeply in love with books without stumbling upon it. Sure, I had always been a reader, but I don't think I would have become such an avid reader without being surrounded by so much book-positive content. However, there were some obvious flaws in the community, especially in the earlier years.


Booktubers, especially the first couple waves, had become a sort of unofficial authority for book lovers. I don't think they ever intended for it to be so, but it did happen nonetheless. As a high schooler who so desperately wanted to be a part of something, I latched on to everything I was told and shown in these videos. I believed that I had to have read every single popular YA book to be a good reader. This was coupled by Epic Reads' online quizzes predominantly catering towards people who are shelling out money for new releases. I also felt I needed to have walls of beautifully organized books. You weren't a real reader without owning so many books, you needed a separate bookshelf for your TBR books. I felt pressure to complete 10-15 books a month and often found myself ignoring school work or family life in order to do so. Most relevant to this post, Booktube made me feel that real readers had to respect books and almost idolize them-almost to the extreme. I'd strain my eyes trying to read a book barely opened, because I couldn't risk cracking the spine. I'd be terrified of lending books to anyone in my life, because I just couldn't risk them coming back even remotely battered. I'd despise anyone who dog-eared pages or left the book open on a surface to save their place. Most importantly, I thought the worst book sin of all was writing in your books. Even the thought gave me chills.


Now mind you, this isn't an attack on the community at all. New Booktubers were trying to fit in and find their footing within the platform. I think a lot of this influence on my younger self was partially me being exceptionally self-conscious and impressionable and partially Booktubers experiencing similar feelings and playing off each other's opinions in order to try to fit in. The community has grown and developed exceptionally over the years, and I find that the content creators are more concerned with cultivating a love for reading than trying to be the "perfect" reader. However, these feelings from the beginning can still be found because they were very strong and vehement opinions for a long time.


Actually, this entire post has been inspired by a video I've recently viewed by Nayareadsandsmiles about this very topic. Naya expressed a similar experience when she began to view Booktube videos. However, she had been annotating books far before she found the community and abruptly stopped when she learned it was "wrong." When she spoke to a former English teacher about this, they introduced her to an essay that explains exactly why you should annotate books.


Link to essay: How to Mark a Book by Mortimer J Adler


The essay is extremely eloquently written, and I do highly recommend you read it. Even if you will always be adamantly against writing in your books, it still raises many points to consider about how you read and absorb the content you ingest. All the same, I will discuss some of the main points here.


The overarching point here is that "marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love." It's about fully immersing yourself into the prose and language and sinking into what the text really means, and beyond that, what it really means to you personally. It's one thing to read a book and enjoy it, but it is an entirely other thing to have a conversation without yourself and with the book to discern what it is you as an individual needs to pull from the pages into your heart and mind. The author expresses that the only way to do this is by writing in the margins and fleshing out your thoughts. It can help you understand why a certain scene or statement makes you feel a certain way, or you may find something in the text that relates to a personal problem or experience.


"You buy a beefsteak and transfer it from the butcher's icebox to your own. But you do not own the beefsteak in the most important sense until you consume it and get it into your bloodstream. I am arguing that books, too, must be absorbed in your bloodstream to do you any good."

In contrast to many of the book opinions I had formed via Booktube, this essay speaks against keeping immaculate books and idolizing the physical form of the book. "Confusion about what it means to own a book leads people to a false reverence for paper, binding, and type—a respect for the physical thing—the craft of the printer rather than the genius of the author." He compares a book to a symphony rather than a painting. The author's work is meant to bleed into your soul and become a part of you that is all-together better for the reading experience. It is not meant to be left barely touched on your bookshelf like your dusty medals from grade school. A battered and marked up book is a loved book.


Most importantly, the author discusses that reading cannot be beneficial until it is active reading. "If reading is to accomplish anything more than passing time, it must be active." Mind you, there are some books that we do pick up simply to pass the time. I call them my "guilty pleasure" novels, though I don't find myself guilty about reading them at all. I often pick up Pretty Little Liars or James Bond for just this reason. I don't expect these books to be ground-breaking of mentally/morally challenging in any way. I simply read them because they are fun. That being said, the profound can be found in unlikely places. The YA fantasies or whimsical middle grades that some people may disregard can hold some truths that deserve true contemplation. I didn't think this was so until I began to review all of my books on Goodreads. Sure, it slowed down how many books I could consume in one month, but I truly think I've found reading far more rewarding since. The anticipation of a review has caused me to think more about what exactly the book is saying than ever before. This point, out of everything the essay has to say, I find to be the most important. Find ways to make your reading more active. I promise you, it is so worth it.


All-in-all the author is in the opinion that the only way to achieve these levels of reading are by annotating your books, and he does leave many pointers on just how to do so. I still have not written in a book, and the idea does still make me squirm a bit. I can see how writing my notes in the margins instead of a notebook can be far more beneficial, though.


In her video, Naya mentions that not only does she annotate a book, but she annotates in a different color with every reread. She leaves an index at the front of the book to know what reading date/year each color coordinates with. I just love this idea! Imagine rereading your favorites and not only experiencing your favorite book, but experiencing how you've grown and developed your mind over the years. It's important to recognize one's own emotional growth, and this is a powerful way to experience it.


Now, imagine reading someone else's words in a book you pick up. Genius and insight can be found in the most unlikely places. Many books I've received from used book sales or Little Libraries have been annotated by the former owner. I've found these annotations to almost always enhance my reading experience and provoke some deeper thought about what I was consuming.


On the same token, someone else's annotations can be even more powerful to you. I shared this article and discussed it with a former teacher and friend. He expressed his love for reading some of his parents' books from college and reading their notes to self and annotations. Imagine finding yourself feeling alienated or lacking guidance, then stumbling upon the words of a loved one while they struggled with the same thing at a similar age. What if you've stumbled upon the words of a loved one long after they are gone? Now imagine your annotations having that same effect on someone you love?


At the end of the day, I think the time for policing how people enjoy books is over. Whether you decide to keep your books immaculate or want to annotate every bit of white space it offers., what is important is that you are enjoying the experience. I do think I will try my hand at annotating a reread of a favorite book or series in the future, but I'm not sure if I'll ever regularly write in my books. It doesn't really matter how you read, as long as it works for you.



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