Annotations

I’ve read several books now where the author tells me in the introduction that he or she has spent the past several decades writing in the margins of books. This author then proceeds to tell me about looking around his or her library the other day and deciding that, by God, it was time to write a book based on all those years of careful annotation.

Then I think back to my youth. I remember being told earnestly throughout school not to write in the books. This was so deeply ingrained into my brain by second grade, that I remember when our teacher began to read us The Hobbit. I happened to see inside the book and glimpsed all her marks. When I asked her about it, she told me that it was her book and she could write in it if she wanted to.

This was a shock to me, because the possibility of writing in a book had not yet crossed my mind at that early age. In fact, writing in books would elude me for the next decade or so until I graduated from high school. The years between were marked with a year-end ritual, as regular as May Day. We all gathered on the last day of school and mechanically searched through our books, looking for any scrap of paper or any bit of pencil mark left between the covers. Those marks had to be eradicated before we could pass on to the next grade, lest our parents owe the school district a great deal of money.

I like to think that on some level, this was an exercise in protecting the text; but that is me looking back with a degree in English literature and a keen interest in textuality. I know that the decision was economically motivated. The district had to make those books last as long as possible because there was damnably little money to buy new books. But you can’t stop a literary critic from dreaming about theory-minded high school administrators protecting the sanctity of the text for future readers.

Annotation has been on my mind today thanks to an article on InsideHigherEd.com by Scott McLemee. In the piece, McLemee describes his personal experience with annotation and his secret system — a few hash marks and some clever abbreviations. He also reminds us that annotation used to be a practiced art, something that was learned formally. There were certain annotations to make in the classics, like Aristotle, annotations that were fashionable and considered standard. Books were even published on the proper way to annotate a book.

Since then, annotation has devolved into a strictly personal preference habit. Most of the textbooks my students read encourage them to read with a pen in hand at all times. I happen to think this is great advice that most college students ignore. They ignore it for the same basic reason why we had to spent those ritual days erasing all pencil marks in our high school texts: the college students want to sell those books back to their bookstores and recoup at least a fraction of the fortune they spent on the texts in the first place.

Okay, so there are monetary reasons why young people want to keep their books pristine, but then there are also adults and scholars who shy away from annotation. In the movie Finding Forrester, Sean Connery’s character scolds his young padiwan for dog-earing a few pages in his book. “Have some respect for the author!” Connery spits at the teenager. His attitude is not without precedent.

A book is a magical thing. Disregarding theory for a moment, a book is the physical result of a lot of time and effort on the author’s part. There are those who believe that the book should be protected and preserved as a kind of rite or offering to the author-god. In less grandiose terms, keeping a book in mint condition shows respect for the author. People who think this way believe deep down that the words and ideas belong to the author, so the physical manifestation of them also still belongs to the author. Buying the book is just another way of buying access to those ideas.

Then there are people like me, who believe that the paper and glue I just bought are now my property, to have, to hold, to tear, to dog-ear, to coffee-stain, to bend, to annotate as I see fit. I don’t see this in any way as disrespect to the author. Those words are bigger than my copy of the book because I do not possess the only copy of the book — unless I’m very lucky. I also see the commentary I make in the margins as my dialogue with the author, my physical manifestation of my thoughts.

They are also helpful reminders for when I write. I mark passages that are useful or especially bad. It helps the review process, to be sure, especially when you didn’t have time to review before you have to teach the book!

Do I worry that I’m changing the reading for the next reader? No. I value the annotations I see in the used books I buy. I picked up a copy of Eagleton’s Literary Theory at a used bookstore the other day, and it fascinates me to see someone else’s reading process. It is a little glimpse into their minds, just as much as reading their writing would be.

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