To Annotate or To Not Annotate. That is the Question

How do we feel about annotation? I’m for it, in the abstract. I tend to get a kick out seeing authors’ and others’ marginalia. I inherited my parents’ shared copies of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, which they used as non-traditional college students. I love their annotations, how what they saw as important enough to underline or comment on tells me something about themselves at that time.

But then we come to my own historical annotations. Whenever I’m reading a book that I previously annotated, the feeling that arises in me tends to be:

My younger reader self was often obsessed with binaries: male/female, gay/straight, Black/white. Or I was painfully earnest, journaling an insight like I’d uncovered a hidden jewel. Often when I read these entries now, I cringe.

The exception seems to be the texts that I read over (and over) again for my dissertation research. Those annotations reveal the hunting-and-pecking for evidence, specific tidbits to help me make my case. Sometimes they seem almost laughably specific, such as how I drew a square around every instance of the word “around” in my copy of The Sun Also Rises. But I still find these annotations enjoyable because they show that process of thinking and research toward a specific argument and return me to that place in my life.

The exception is that I love underlining and I appreciate seeing my previous underlines. This can get a bit silly, as in my copies of The Professor’s House by Willa Cather or Passing by Nella Larson, where the underlines get so copious that I might as well have highlighted the entire book. But they also have competing colors of ink, revealing the things that jumped out to me on the second reading, and the third, and the fourth… . Evidence of a book respected, loved, soul-developing, and brain-expanding. And there is pleasure to be had in seeing an underscored item and thinking, once again, “Yes. This.”

One thought on “To Annotate or To Not Annotate. That is the Question

  1. I’m in favor with a snobbish caveat: when the annotating is done by someone who knows how to annotate effectively. That is, like you, I’ve come across the massive quantities of underlining, sometimes by me and sometimes by others (and in my first term of graduate school, a copy of Silas Marner marked up by someone with a woefully small vocabulary, who wrote the definitions on the page margins…), and been annoyed. But I agree that the occasional call to focus from the sidelines can be a lovely discovery.


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