Shelf life: Marginal musings — the power of annotation

An open book contains notes, highlights and doodles overlapping in different colors. Two hearts are next to the book.
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

I am the rare individual who remains endlessly entertained by the books I read in high school. I regularly flip through the classics of standardized English curriculums (such as “The Great Gatsby” and “Frankenstein”) for fun. 

I don’t do this for the stories, but rather for the scribblings in the margins — my sophomore, junior and senior-year annotations entertain me more than any classic of English literature ever could. Though many of my most enlightening notes and funniest scribbles were intended for my eyes only, the most joy I’ve found from annotating has been, surprisingly, collaborative. I understand those who appreciate annotation as a solo endeavor. At the same time, I’ve recently come to discover something uniquely beautiful about annotating for, and with, other people. 

For my friend’s nineteenth birthday, I annotated a copy of “Ender’s Game” for him. It was a process that took me weeks. I reread intently, commenting on everything: my favorite — and least favorite — moments and scenes, the most disturbing parts, the aspects that confused me upon my first reading (fourth grade) and the pieces that confused me, still, at nineteen. The gift was the book itself, but I was also giving him my experience of reading it. When I annotate books for people, I try to walk them through my thoughts, to let them think with me. Annotations are an invitation into my mind.

This year, I received my first annotated book (Delia Owens’ “Where The Crawdads Sing”) from another friend for Christmas. It was adorned with sticky tabs and color-coded highlights, along with neatly penciled explanations of what my friend loved and hated, what made her mad, what made her feel. It was an act of love, one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. When I started the novel on a plane ride back to Seattle, multiple times I found myself whipping my head towards the empty seat to my left. Reading the book with her commentary — bitingly funny, full of care and voice — I was convinced that she was sitting right next to me. Her annotations allowed me to read that book with her, even though we were apart. 

My copy of Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts” has been annotated four times over. The first time, by myself. The second time, by a boy I was talking to back in high school. (I trusted him with my annotations, I trusted him to annotate back to me). The third, by me, again. The fourth time, by a person I dated briefly. Rereading it now, I’m amazed by the way our scribblings blend together in the margins. Our handwriting styles converge and diverge: One of us used a mechanical pencil, another one wrote in dark, wide 6B strokes. I see points where the people I’ve cared for agree and disagree with me, where we respond to each other, where our thoughts overlap. 

I love “The Argonauts,” and I think I will for a while. Surprisingly, I love these annotations, too. Rereading this book isn’t sad or lonely — I’m not bitter about these past handwritings, notes from people I might not even speak to anymore. Instead, these annotations ground me in time. As I explore the convergence of our reading experiences, I’m reminded about why I cared when I did. 

Reading can be a solitary act. Annotating intentionally, as a gift, makes it a point of connection. Now, when I lend books to friends, I hope they will come back with split spines, bent pages, scribbled-in margins. I want to be invited into their minds, too. 

Kate Jones PO ’24 is from Seattle, Washington. Her favorite tool for annotation is a Zebra Sarasa Clip gel pen.

Facebook Comments