How To

How to Create a Fellowship of the Traveling Book

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Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Have you read or seen The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants? If you haven’t, it’s a story of a pair of thrift store jeans that magically fit four friends perfectly, and the books/movies chronicle how the girls’ lives change as they each wear the pants. Well, I say the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing everyone that jeans are comfortable. So, while I will be eschewing my own personal sisterhood of the traveling pants, I am interested in a fellowship of the traveling book. One of my favorite BookTokkers, SatrayReads, introduced me to this idea, and I thought it would be fun to brainstorm what this could look like.

The basic idea is that you choose a book to circulate through a group of people. Each person reads it, annotates it, and passes it on to the next person. These annotations include underlined passages, bracketed sections, written notes in the margins, and any other reactions the reader wants to record within the book. Eventually, the book gets back to its original owner. Now, they have a book full of highlights and notes that will augment their own reading experience. So fun, right? I’m hoping I can take this idea to my in-person book club and form my own fellowship. But because I’m extra, I really want to think it through first, and I’ll invite you along for that ride.

Which Book?

For me, this is an absolutely huge question. In the TikTok linked above, SatrayReads chose a book she hadn’t yet read to send around her community of bookish friends. I think this is both a good idea and a risky one. If you don’t mind having other people’s opinions color yours, choosing a book you haven’t yet read is a fine choice. On the other hand, you might not like the book! What would it be like to have all this time and energy invested in a flop of a book? On the other other hand (yes, I have three hands), maybe all those annotations will guarantee you have a fun time with the book whether or not you enjoy the original text.

I would also be wary of sending one of my all-time favorite books or one of the books I will “accept no criticism” of, as you may have seen videos of on TikTok. The balance would be choosing a book I truly enjoyed, one I feel demonstrates something about my taste in books. Still, it should be one I don’t feel too protective about. I want to be able to enjoy a good roast if it’s warranted. Have those thoughts helped you choose?

a group of women drinking wine and discussing books
image via Canva

Which People?

Most of all, I think this fellowship will work best among avid readers. I certainly have lots of people in my life who read 0-5 books per year. I would hate for someone to feel overly pressured and then maybe avoidant (it’s me, hi, I’m the one who gets avoidant when pressured). If you have an in-person book club, this would be an amazing activity to arrange. Likewise, if you have reader friends scattered far and wide, mailing books is quite easy!

Here’s another idea that’s high risk, high reward. What if you did this as a gift for someone? For example, you know someone’s favorite book, and you have a crew of people near and dear to them annotate it for a special occasion. What a keepsake!

Likewise, I think this would be an amazing activity with elders from a family or community. I love having samples of my grandparents’ handwriting — my grandmother’s macaroon recipe is always up on my fridge. If you have some elders whose thoughts on a book you’d like to see recorded, this would be a fantastic activity.

Organizing the Annotations

When you have multiple people annotating a book, you need a system to know whose annotations are whose. The best way to do this is to assign each annotator one color of ink to use. A key inside the front cover of the book will match each person and their color.

Using little adhesive flags, also color coordinated, is a good way to mark which pages have annotations. Similarly, if there isn’t room in the margins, post-it notes can be placed on the pages. Or, heck, put numbers in the text and place endnotes in a little notebook. You could also provide stickers — imagine color-coded heart stickers for people to place near especially poignant lines. The possibilities are truly endless.

Annotators should know they are not only responding to the texts, but they can also respond to the annotations. The final recipient gets to attend a book club, spread out over time and space, to see how people conversed with each other inside the book.

a photo of a book with flowers sticking out between the pages

Fun Surprises!

A friend once gave me a ball of yarn, and as I unwound the ball, all sorts of fun trinkets fell out. What a gift, right? I’m thinking that, but with flat trinkets. They could be intended for the next reader or the final recipient. Stickers, drawings, photos, postcards, interesting articles, a crisp ten dollar bill to buy coffee with. Again, the only limits are your time and imagination.

Feeling Inspired?

Of course, everyone in the group needs to be comfortable with annotating a book. We’ve got things to consider, along with techniques to use. There’s motivation for the practice, and recommended kits to help you organize your process. The important thing is not to be shy about recording your thoughts in the margins of a book. All those giggles and gasps and tears will be appreciated by your fellow readers, and creating one-of-a-kind books makes a truly special artifact for yourself and other book lovers.