Reading and writing

I have gotten out of the habit of annotating books.  I started underlining and note-making in the margins when I studied GCSE English literature, and continued to do so during my A-level in the same subject, and in the books that related to my literature modules on my undergraduate degree.  One strong motivation was that during this period I sat many open-book examinations, and my annotations helped me to locate quotations swiftly.

Re-reading (any version of) any text includes as part of the experience a re-visiting of one’s former reading self.  With a well-annotated text, though, that aspect of the experience becomes both sharper and deeper.  One can read a precise record of what one thought about a particular word or passage (or what other thing/s one was prompted to think about when reading it), and get a sense of what seemed worth commenting on during that earlier reading.  (And what didn’t; I wanted to begin this entry with a quotation from a writer who noted that one of the things that most struck him upon re-reading a marked-up text of his own was that he had passed over in silence passages that now seemed wonderful to him.  I’m fairly sure that Wayne Booth was the writer in question, but have been unable to locate the quotation.  Perhaps if I annotated more thoroughly…)

In the case of famous intellectuals these matters can become ones of public interest.  I remember reading in an article by Carlo Ginzburg on ‘Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes’ a point which rests upon the author’s knowledge of things that Freud had in his library, and could therefore be taken to have read.  (Not a watertight assumption!  There are still more books than I would care to enumerate that remain unopened on my shelves.  [Which makes me think in turn of Gatsby, and D’Angelo Barksdale’s reading of a particular detail of that character’s character.]  A book cannot be annotated without having been read though…)  Freud’s library is still preserved; I’m sure others’ are too.  My point here is that for any dedicated reader there is surely at least personal value (and value for one’s interested descendants or other loved ones) in leaving material traces of the thoughts that accompanied one’s reading activities.

I say my habit of annotating books went away, and this is true; yet I am a rather prolific annotator of photocopied materials.  (And though I do not use them that much, I am also glad of and sometimes avail myself of the note-making possibilities afforded by .pdf files and most e-readers.)  So why not books too?  I understand and sympathise with the fact that some students endeavour to keep the books they buy unblemished with a view of selling them on later.  But I never really wanted to – want to – sell any of my books.  (When I was particularly hard up I did part with a few books that earned a good price.  [One of them, appropriately for the topic of this post, was Genette’s Palimpsests.]  I’m glad I didn’t have to sell many though – and in fact, I could really use right now copies of two of them I let go: The Practice of Everyday Life and Being and Time.)

I confess I am slightly precious about the appearance of my books.  When I transport them between work and home I will sometimes wrap them up, or more often sandwich them between two library books (!).  A related bibliophilic instinct is a reluctance to alter even with a deliberate and careful act the appearance of a nicely-presented object (and most books are nicely-presented objects).

But I’m thinking that these are not good enough reasons to continue to abstain from entering into a pencilled dialogue with authors in the margins of my books (I’m not a monster: pencil is a better choice than pen, and I still would never countenance annotating a book that was not my own).  I have known this in the past to be invaluable to the processes of both thinking and writing, and I intend to resume the habit in the hope that it will prove so again.

I’d love to hear from others about their annotating habits.

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2 thoughts on “Reading and writing

  1. I never annotate books because I like the thought (almost exclusively concerning fiction) that every reader has a different experience, and will conjure different thoughts and images while they are reading. Any annotations could conflict with these images they have and change how they see the book. This would be annoying in the same way it is when an author describes a physical feature of a character some way into a book, after you’ve had a very different mental picture of them in existence up until then.
    I mostly buy my books from secondhand shops, and I think I’d probably be put off buying a book if it was full of someone else’s notes, but mainly I think the reason I don’t annotate is because I rarely read the same book twice, and therefore, what would be the point?

    • Thanks for your thoughts Laura. You raise an interesting point – that ideally, one’s first experience of a work, especially fiction, should probably be as close to being free from external viewpoints as possible. And I too would think twice before buying a heavily-annotated book. After that first reading though I think I’d be quite interested to read someone else’s thoughts and weigh them up against my own.

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