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Annotation: How to Get the Most Out of Your Books

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Twenty years ago, in 2001, a paper called From the Margins to the Center: The Future of Annotations was published. This paper was and is widely referenced, even the Wikipedia page on text annotation drawing more heavily from it than any other source. This paper set out to take a look at what annotation might become in the new millennium. It summarized the most significant studies surrounding annotation published in the 1900s and gave a brief look into the purposes annotations have historically served especially before the printing press, which is when the paper claims annotations became a private aspect of reading. (Though H.J. Jackson points out in Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books that a common social practice in the Victorian era was to trade books to read the annotations of others.) Before the printing press, scribes would copy over annotations from older manuscripts when rewriting a text, possibly also adding their own; this made supplementary text a shared source of knowledge passed down and circulated among many readers. These metatexts were often crucial to how the main work was understood. Scribes would make annotations of annotations giving future readers more and more to consider over time.

What are annotations, and how do we use them?

Long after this practice had diminished, The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach, an essay by William Iser, was published in 1972. Iser starts with the concept of what a literary work is. The essay posits that a literary work is not solely the text, nor is it solely the realization of the words in the readers mind, but it exists in a shared liminal space between the two. Annotation can be viewed as a visual representation of the writer and reader coming together; these supplementary notes create a more fully formed picture of what written words actually look like. Words are not merely their definitions; they are also the implications readers assume and the pictures they form.

This individual reaction to the text we record while annotating is precisely why sharing annotations can be so helpful and important. When students seminar in a college classroom, the result is quite similar to the kind of annotation sharing From the Margins to the Center pointed toward 20 years ago, though probably won’t be as detailed as sharing the annotations themselves. In the current climate (there’s a pandemic in case you haven’t heard) annotation sharing can be useful as Zoom meetings limit the way in which conversations occur around a text. It can also be more helpful for some learners to process fellow student’s annotations visually at their own pace. (Though, it should be noted studies have shown that the readers disposition to the perceived annotator is integrally important to how the reader responds to the annotations and the text itself.)

Sharing annotations is a practice From the Margins to the Center discusses at length, diving even into computer programs allow sharing annotations, but I think the scope to which we use this function was vastly underestimated as it has become a vital part of communication in every corner of the internet. There are many different kinds of annotations besides what will be talked about here, such as linguistic and computational annotations.

ANNOTATE: Latin annotatus, past participle of annotare, from ad- + notare to mark

NOTE: Latin nota (notare) note, mark, character, brand

(Etymologies taken from Merriam-Webster’s Colligate Dictionary 11th Edition)

The word annotate literally means to add a note. In this way, all comments on the internet are annotations. When considering this fact, it’s easy to see that the predictions for people sharing annotations were far surpassed. It is a tool currently used by billions of people a day all over the internet, but these are not our current concern — from here on out we’re going to focus on annotating books.

 The blurring of private and public annotations, something From the Margins to the Center predicted will happen, can now be seen in ebooks. When passages are highlighted by a lot of other Kindle users the text will be underlined and a note will tell you how many people have thought this passage was worth marking. But I might also point you back to the fact that your perception of the Kindle users as a whole will likely inform if you find these mass-marked passages helpful. The annotations of others are not inherently helpful, but they have the capacity to be. The minds of others think different thoughts, and knowing some of these will help you expand what you see when you read a book. I hope you’ll approach notes and annotations with an open mind. Our perception of the annotator will inform your thoughts, but I hope by knowing that this is happening will allow you to push past the annotator and evaluate the note based on its content.

Things to Consider When Annotating Books

For book readers, adding notes serves a variety of purposes only limited by the readers creativity. However, there are three main purposes that all annotations will serve: chunking, connecting, and/or signaling. Annotations can serve more than one of these purposes at a time but will always serve at least one of these three purposes, in addition to any other reasons the annotator has marked the section.

First, chunking is a cognitive process which enables us to group things together so our memories can be organized for later access. Chunking is how we group all dogs together and the reason phone numbers are split into three sections: it makes them easier to remember.

Second, connecting refers to connections annotators note to things inside or outside the text, whether they be concepts, other places in the book, other books, or anything else.

And finally, signaling is when a note marks a specific place in the text so it can later be recalled. There can be exceptions to these three, but the vast majority of time, when we annotate a book, it will serve at least one of these purposes. But this leads back to the variety of what different people choose to note in a book.

Julia Kristeva, a French feminist scholar, used the term thetic break, first in her dissertation Revolution in Poetic Language, and elsewhere later, to define the moment when non-verbal thought becomes articulated or communicable inside our thought process. Why this moment happens to each of us at different times while reading is hard to know, but when each of us enacts this cognitive process, it will be highly individualized, most likely relating to your personal associations with a word, sentence, or concept. Further, whether you choose to write down a thought you have while reading will also be determined by such factors as how important you evaluate your thought to be and why you are reading the text in the first place. Reading for pleasure, you are likely to annotate different things than if you’re reading to then later write an essay on the text.

Personally, at the moment, I am close reading and annotating the book Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li. As a fiction writer myself, when I annotate I look for aspects and features of a book that I find interesting and would like to use in my own work. I am also looking for how the author has crafted their prose to produce a certain effect. I chose this current book because the space in which the story takes place is an ephemeral one in the narrator’s mind. Once I’m done with this book, I will likely turn to reread The Waves by Virginia Wolf because the prose also exist only in the minds of the characters. Through reading these and a few more books, I hope to gain a richer understanding of how writer’s might effectively paint the interior lives of characters.

This all being said, in most books my annotations are not so thorough. I sometimes go pages and pages without making a single mark, but on later subsequent rereadings, I will fill in the blanks. Rereading is not a practice every reader works on, but I will say that annotation combined with rereading will help you get the most out of the books you read. Vladimir Nabokov gave a lecture once called Good Readers and Good Writers where he said:

“A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation.”

By artistic appreciation, Nabokov refers us back to the deeper understanding of how a book is written. Taking down the barriers that stand between us and artistic appreciation, we can further contemplate a book’s contents and implications as a way to stretch our intellectual capacities and consider the text in different ways. For writers, this often leads to an admiration of how the author manages to stimulate certain feelings in the reader, or falling in love with specific passages or sentences for their poetic beauty. This is the reason I believe Nabokov chose the term artistic appreciation specifically; after all, Nabokov is a writer.

Annotation also helps break down this barrier because, through responding in the margins, you stop and further contemplate what is actually written in front of you. When I stop to mark something and reread it, I usually end up scouring back through the book to mark previous passages that relate to the part where I’ve stopped connecting different parts of the book together. Through the annotating process, the book itself becomes a reference that I can refer to years later.

Annotation became more private after the printing press because everyone could have their own copy. For many of us, this means that our annotations can be built on internal personal references, but the best advice I ever received concerning how to annotate was given to me as a freshman in college, though I ignored it at the time. A professor said, write your annotations so that a stranger picking up your book will be able to understand them. I do this now because when trying to refer to several books I annotated as a freshman in college, I didn’t have the slightest idea what I had been thinking at the time, as my notes were often fragmented memory cues and half charted thoughts I foolishly expected to always remember. Now, I have been sure to record keys for the symbols and acronyms I use and write out thoughts as fully as space will allow, using sticky notes and note cards to expand when needed. Compared with small words whose meanings serve merely as a reminder, putting down fully formed thoughts will help you years down the road when you come back to a book as an older person who has repurposed some of these neurons by reading and remembering other books.

Reading your annotations later will no doubt be affected by how you perceive your past self who made the annotations, but giving your future self your fully formed thoughts will allow you to evaluate each specific thought instead of broadly assuming what you were thinking due to a lack of information. And hopefully making detailed fully formed notes will allow you to discern from the annotations you agree with and those you don’t. You get the most out of your books by reevaluating your understanding of what is going on in the book. Annotations can help this process immensely, not only when reading a book for the first time but on all subsequent readings as well.

In the End

If annotation is not a tool you already use while reading, I hope that these considerations will lead you to start annotating your books and spending more time contemplating their content and form. Writers put so much time and effort into the words we read — no other reader will match this — but dwelling on the choices of the author is something all readers should do out of respect for the work at hand. Only through contemplation can we get the most out of our books.

To close I think it will be best to quote again from Good Readers and Good Writers. Here Nabokov in turn quotes Flaubert writing to his mistress:

“Commel’on serait savant si l’on connaissait bien seulement cinq a six livres: ‘What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half a dozen books.’”

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