Contented Reader

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Writing in the margins

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I’ve read several Serious Professional Readers whose opinion I respect talk about the importance to them of taking notes in the margins of books.

I was a dedicated note-taker in college.  Once I got over the initial horror of writing in a book, I immediately saw the value in engaging with a book as if I were having a conversation with it.  The process of taking notes in a book helps me understand it, helps me remember it, helps me enter it on a deeper level and engage with it.

The problem is that I love to re-read books.  And when I re-read books that already have my notes in them, the notes irritate me immensely.  The conversation that was, on my previous reading, like having a conversation with the book, is now like having someone else in the room talking while I’m trying to read.  Occasionally, the notes are helpful.  I was reading a short story from Kessell’s The Baum Plan for Financial Independence, and next to one sentence, I saw that my own handwriting said, ‘from Twain.’  I had completely forgotten the bit of Twain that Kessell was quoting, and I wouldn’t have recognized it this week- I just happened to be reading the Kessel last time not long after the Twain.  But often, I’m horrified by how stupid and awkward and inane the comments written in my margins are.  What was useful while I was doing it makes me shun that copy of a book as if it had some sort of contagion.

So I’ve pretty well stopped writing in margins.

This week, I’ve been reading the young-adult level books that I assigned for summer reading.  As an experiment, while I reread The Graveyard Book and “Mowgli’s Brothers,” two pieces I assigned to be read together, I took copious notes in a composition book.  I just wanted to have the notes to refer to during class discussion, and to use the process of note-taking to help my memory a bit.  I noted character names and important plot points.  Also, I found myself noting allusions, connections, opinions, comments to the characters, quotations I loved… all sorts of things.  I enjoyed the process of note-taking away from the margins.  I have a composition book now with my reactions and thoughts, but I don’t have to have them right there when I want to re-read the book.

I wonder how this process would work if I applied it to personal reading?  What if I used it when I’m reading slowly and thoughtfully?  I have a little Sunday morning ritual; I shut myself up in my library with a book of the ‘classic’ or ‘serious’ type, and read for several hours straight.  It might be very interesting to add some writing and note-taking to that ritual this Sunday, and see how my reading is affected by it.


Written by Contented Reader

August 28, 2012 at 7:07 am

Posted in Opinions


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