On marking up books

The topic of annotating books has come up several times lately in conversation. I never marked up my books until high school when summer reading assignments became part of my vacation; before that writing in books was taboo to me. But the books were mine and the letter detailing the summer reading assignment encouraged marking up the books in order to remember certain things, so I went to town. This turned out to be helpful when finding certain excerpts or character traits for the assignments I had to do. Most of my marking up was to underline and highlight excerpts that I particularly liked, as my annotation could not, as Fermat said, be contained within the margin. For books I really disliked I attempted to write one-sentence chapter summaries to avoid rereading the chapter. This method worked for the summary but not so well when I needed to know who gave the main character in A Farewell to Arms an orange. (Yes, this was an actual test question. No, I don’t remember who it was.)

Still, I tried to write in my books as little as possible in order to keep the text readable. (Okay, and to maximize resale value when I got to college. Damn expensive textbooks.) While reading for my French classes, I came across many words that I didn’t know, and to avoid looking them up later, I did what any good scribbler would do: wrote the English translation over the word. I gave up on this after awhile, choosing to learn the words the hard way, because writing that many words in my books would have cluttered up the paragraphs.

There is definitely a theme here. I want the ability to mark up my books, yet I find myself doing less and less of it in recent years, probably because marking up the book takes me back to that particular time I read the story. Every reading should be fresh without being influenced by previous readings. Marking up my books takes that away. This, more than anything else, is why I’ve curtailed my book annotation habit.

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