I originally published this piece in my school's newspaper, but am now posting it here as well.
Recently, I participated in a track meet which, as somewhat expected, ran multiple hours behind. Anticipating boredom while waiting for my next event, I made sure to pack a book in my bag: Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges and translated by Andrew Hurley (coincidentally, an English assignment the week prior had us choose a short story writer to study—I immediately picked Borges). I also made sure, perhaps more importantly, to pack a trustworthy blue pen and a small notebook. As the title of this piece suggests, I put both on my packing list for a simple reason: annotating.
While I do not write here about my specific annotation strategies (although that is a good idea for another time), I will inform you that my blue pen underlines, circles, and, crucially, writes—if my “deranged doctor” handwriting (seriously, a teacher once said that) can even be called that—notes in the margins. My tiny green composition notebook receives any ideas I find too important to keep contained in the book. Thus, upon finishing my high jump competition, I took out the mystical blue wonder that is Collected Fictions and began reading. “Reading,” of course, necessitates the aforementioned annotation practices (which, admittedly, do often go overboard, but everyone has something to work on!).
Somewhat understandably, a close friend asked whether I was reading for school. Upon me answering in the negative, they then remarked, presumably in jest, that such a habit was “psychotic.” Obviously, my (hopefully) friend simply (hopefully) hyperbolically and humorously reacted to something they considered unusual, but I have received similar surprise on numerous occasions. Everyone inherently develops their own reading strategy, but I desire to make annotating not seem that unusual. Really, I should just direct everyone to Mortimer J. Adler’s essay “How to Mark a Book,” but a) it is from 1942 so it may not fully account for technological changes and b) perhaps surprisingly, I am not Mortimer J. Adler.
Likely, we all learned to annotate from an English class, therefore making it just another one of those annoying, seemingly useless things teachers demand from us. As a general tip, try to at least understand why a teacher asks something before dismissing it. The simple answer here may be that English teachers want easy evidence that you at least attempted to read. Probably so! Maybe they also wanted to make life easier come class discussion and essay-writing time? Definitely so! I would also posit that your English teacher wanted (and, of course, still wants) you to develop good reading habits (and no, not just for the SAT/ACT reading section).
Ideally, people do not buy books for them to simply sit on a shelf. Rather, they would buy them to read. Adler claims those who do not are “deluded individual[s who] own wood-pulp and ink, not books.” Much probably can be comprehended or “absorbed in your bloodstream” (as Adler says) from “merely” slow, methodical reading without annotation (here Adler and I actually seem to slightly disagree). However, this limitation prevents the pseudo-permanent recording of such absorption.
Even simple underlines—or whatever your preferred method—mark for your future self what was important when you read it. Through extensive margin (or even sticky) notes, including thoughts, confusions, connections, and questions, you even more explicitly record your present comprehension. Furthermore, unlike Adler, we all now have access to various modern technologies, with EPUB files, Kindles, and a plethora of cloud-synced note apps. Thus, if you prefer to read in the digital realm (although I still swear by physical books), you will have an even easier time annotating (for instance, you almost surely will never run into physical space issues). If you got a book from a library, consider marking down your ideas in a physical or digital notebook. The important part is to get your thoughts in writing. Remember, you write for yourself, so incomplete and bullet-pointed phrases suffice!
Yes, annotation will undeniably slow down your reading speed. Yes, at times you may wish to permanently forsake that “cursed” pen(cil). Soon, though, you may realize reading without it leaves you unsatisfied. It leaves your brain “full.” Maybe after trying you still find it “psychotic,” and if so, do not be afraid to let me know why.