Marginalia, or how (and why) to write in your books: One Reader’s Method

Marginalia, or how (and why) to write in your books: One Reader’s Method

Are you a carnal book lover or a courtly book lover?

That’s one of the questions we’ve been asking ourselves lately in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club, inspired by Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, a book we read together several years ago. Fadiman says: “I came to realize that just as there is more than one way to love a person, so is there more than one way to love a book…. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us, a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel.”

The MMD Book Club is where we’re learning to read better, together—and that means reading a selection together to discuss each month, but also special content and regular classes that helps us get more out of our reading lives. Books are tools. Perhaps the most important tools, but tools all the same.

We try to avoid using the word “should” around here; there are very few shoulds in the reading life. (In I’d Rather Be Reading I call it “the bad s-word.”) But we do hope to convince you that you can write in your books.

Our class for November was officially titled Why and How to Write in Your Books, but unofficially, we’ve been referring to it as Marginalia.

Our Book Club Community Manager, Ginger Horton, is a self-proclaimed carnal book lover. Her husband, Matthew, loathes borrowing books after she’s read them because he teases she reads everything as if it’s a textbook. She’s not afraid to mark them up, write in the margins, underline and highlight and dog ear a book. She shared her system, honed over the years, with us in our Why and How to Write in Your Books class, and I asked her to show and tell you a little more here.

I’ll let her tell it. Enjoy! – Anne

***** ***** *****

Marginalia has a storied (pun always intended) history. People like Mark Twain wrote in margins (bonus points if you get that reference). And Samuel Taylor Coleridge. And John Updike.

One of my favorite anecdotes surrounding marginalia comes from John Adams arguing with an author in the margins of a book, where the author writes: “In the historical record villains are ‘unmasked at length.’” Adams notes: “Not always.” The author goes on to say, “And the honest man is justified before his story ends.” Adams: “Not always.”

Why might you want to write in your books? Well, for one, reading is a solitary activity, for the most part. Unless you read with a pen in your hand.

The words have been written, edited, printed. Separated by geography or time or even language, you may never get the chance to interact with the author.

I write in my books to make them my own, to slow down the reading process for enjoyment or comprehension, to remember points to check back on later. In fact, Mortimer Adler argues that we don’t really even own a book until we mark it up (side note: don’t write in books you don’t own… this goes for the library or borrowed copies). While I don’t quite agree with Adler there, once I got hooked on writing in my books, I’ve barely been able to read without a pen in hand ever since. [I personally favor a Space Pen, since you can hold them in any position without having to scribble to start the ink, or a Mildliner highlighter.]

Literary critic George Steiner said “An intellectual is, quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.” I don’t know about that either, but I do know I get more out of my reading life when I’m thinking about the text, asking questions, conversing with the author, even if it’s just in the margins.

If you’re courtly at the moment, but would like to become just a little more carnal with your books, perhaps pick just one of these methods to start. I suggest underlining, even in light pencil if you prefer. You can skim through later to find the most important thoughts, or flip through to remember the beautiful language you loved, or quickly pull out a few character details that stood out to you when someone asks years later what you loved about the book.

My method:

underline: something important to remember/beautiful writing

curved bracket (like one singular parentheses): larger thought, important to remember

[square bracket]: something to question/disagree with (? question mark in margin if needs further thought)

A-frame star: action item

Asterisk: key theme (limit these stars to ten or less, so they stay the most important thoughts)

Dog ear (now, happily replaced by a book dart): permanent takeaway, quotes and thoughts to come back to again and again

the letter “t”: title of the book embedded in the text or story

the letter “A”: alliteration, especially used for poetry, but always a delight to find in prose

numbers: sequential arguments (especially nonfiction), idea taken from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book

Front cover: write when & where & why acquired book (if significant/special such as a trip or a gift, recommendation from a friend or trusted sourcelike an inscription to myself)

Back cover: flight books, people I want to recommend this book to, initial thoughts for reviewing book (pithy book talk)

If you’d like to learn more about marginalia, our MMD Book Club events are recorded and available to watch afterwards anytime, which means members have access to classes like this one plus others like One Hour to a Better #Bookstagram and How to Get Your Hands on Advanced Review Copies. If you have a book lover in your life, even if that book lover is you, we have monthly and annual gift memberships available.

I’d love to hear your relationship with marking up your books. Are you appalled by the idea, or are marginalia indispensable to your reading life? Please tell us—and by all means, share your favorite tips and tricks—in the comments section.

46 comments | Comment

46 comments

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  1. Sue says:

    I LOVE writing and underlining in books, it makes the book MY OWN! Sometimes I can’t help myself, I can’t read if I don’t have a pencil, I can’t read ONE MORE LINE without taking official notice of THIS INCREDIBLE PHRASE. I underline, I bracket, I star, and I usually use pencil, on the off chance that I will have to erase everything. My mother likes to read a book that I have underlined in, because she likes to see what I appreciated. Once my friend also underlined HER favorite passages and initialed them, after I had marked mine in pencil and my mother had used ink. And, after all, doesn’t Kindle do the same thing? If X number of people underline the same sentence, doesn’t it give us a broken line indicating that a large number of people have marked it? We LIKE to see what other people thought! It becomes part of the discussion. As your writer said, it’s a way to commune and talk about the book. I’m frustrated when it’s a library book and I cannot mark it up! Although some books do not even invite me to “comment”, but “Peace Like a River” has got my pencil at the ready!! What a glorious book!

  2. Lizabeth Snell says:

    Because I was an English teacher for 35 years, and my kids were always using books that belonged to the school, we (and now I) used lots and lots of sticky notes, tape flags and other ways of hilighting without actually writing. I told them I wanted their books to look like hedgehogs when they brought them to our discussions. And also, they had to quote from the book as they brought up the points they wanted to make, so the flags were useful.
    I just removed all my flags from Crazy Brave (and there were SO many!) as I wrote in my notebook the phrases I wanted to keep and go back to. 🙂

    • Ruthie says:

      Yes, this is how I “underline or make book notes: on Post-Its or sticky book darts, the most crucial ones being hot pink. They don’t show when a book is shelved. I’ll sometimes note a block of prose in VERY light pencil.

    • Glen says:

      Now that’s a great idea! I just wish I could find my little box full of stitches notes, when I want it. (It’s usually buried under a bunch of stuff I have set aside that I want to make notes on….library hold note, opts, etc!)

  3. Pam says:

    Remember that all of us can’t read books as hard copies. My vision issues require significant text enlargement in order for me to read for long periods without fatigue and blurring vision. So I thank my great good fortune for kindle. And I love ‘marking up’ my kindle. It is easy to highlight and to makes notes. AND, the most fun part, I can then email the highlights and notes to myself, print them up and take them along to book club. Another great idea that I haven’t acted on yet is to make a file of these digital marginalia. They are as much (more?) fun to review as skimming through a hard copy looking for the notes you’ve made.

  4. Samantha says:

    I prefer the sticky note method (with note on sticky if needed), mainly because I can continue reading pretty quickly and stay in the moment. If I don’t have any on hand, I have also done this w/a notebook on the side. I feel that my notes are mine, so leaving them for another potential reader is not only a little too intimate, but it might not let them explore the text outside of my own notes.

    That being said, I love finding marginalia from old books I’ve gotten. And I’ve totally done it before. So who knows? Maybe I’ll move back to a marginalia method 🙂

  5. Manda Kalagayan says:

    For my own books, I’m firmly in the courtly camp. I don’t like marking up a book, although I would consider using light pencil to underline or an occasional book dart to point out a key passage. The key for me is that it would need to be rare. If too much is underlined or highlighted on a page, then nothing really stands out. It just blurs together.

  6. Birgitta Qvarnström Frykner says:

    Writing, underlining, markings My Kindle is full of underlining. Some books are shoolbooks for life, some go without a mark, which of the ones do you read again

  7. Hope Phillips says:

    I just can not write in books! When I was young we didn’t have a lot of money so we didn’t have a lot of books that we owned. The library was my main source of books. So…. we never wrote in them, or turned down the corner to mark our spot. This is a hard habit to break. So sticky notes or a notepad are great alternatives. And as Pam said above, Kindle allows highlighting and that works great as well.

  8. Cheryl Powers says:

    I prefer highlighting, usually with a yellow marker. I might add a star or two with a pen, but underlining is very distracting to me personally.

  9. Jamie says:

    I love marking up my books! It gives me a deeper and lasting experience of reading. It is such a treat to come across my previous notes and see how I’ve grown or how I’ve stayed the same. I am not as organized as your system for marking, but I do add hearts for something I loved, smiley faces for something that made me laugh or smile, the word “me” for something I identified with or spoke to me. For ebooks I use the Kindle highlight function (and love seeing what others have highlighted.) For library books, I add a book dart, then go back and copy those passages into my journal.

  10. Kelli says:

    My dad always wrote and marked up books. He passed away 14 years ago and one of my most treasured possessions is his copy of Paul Tournier’s “Guilt and Grace” with my dad’s arrows, underlining, words, and exclamation points. Love it so much. Love this post! 🙂

  11. Janet says:

    Much food for thought. Initially I read mostly library books, so marking was out. Then I spent years as an academic underlining, highlighting and marking up books constantly. I also took notes. When I retired, I began reading more for pleasure and just cannot write in books…reminds me too much of work! But after a year of pleasure reading, I’m yearning for something more meaningful. I started using book darts, Sometimes I take notes, but I’m not sure yet about writing in books…I’m thinking about it. Thanks for this informative post!

  12. Kimberly Sherman says:

    I love this article. I am on my Nth annual reread of Jane Eyre, and decided that this year I would include the practice of marginalia. thank you for your tips on front cover, back cover, T, A, and stars! Let’s add and F for foreshadowing :). I am enjoying the book so much more by slowing down and savoring the text — with pencil and tabs in hand.

  13. Lisa F. says:

    I fall squarely within the camp of those who just can’t bring themselves to write in a book. I use small, metallic jewel-toned paper clips (more “special” than the regular ones) to mark a page where I want to remember a passage, quote, beautiful language, or lovely turn of phrase. My most heavily paper-clipped books right now are Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Gentleman in Moscow. Since this is a recent habit for me, I’m sure as I re-read my classics the paper clips will add up!

  14. Lori East says:

    This brings to mind an old memory, slightly off-topic (but not really). Years ago, I was a young Army wife living overseas. My husband travelled a lot and our post library was my refuge. Once when I was returning a bundle of books, the librarian took me aside and said that some of the books I’d returned earlier in the week had been marked up in pencil. I said I was surprised as I hadn’t noticed it, and he quickly let me know that he was sure that I had marked up those books. I assured him that there was no way I had done any such thing, but forever after that he would personally oversee any of the books I returned. (Of course, he also asked me not to put my feet on a footstool in the library too, so maybe he just had issues.) In those days I wouldn’t have dreamed of writing in any book. Today I write in them (my own, not the library copies) just to spite my long-ago nemesis.

  15. Jo Anne Kindler says:

    I’m a member of the MMD book club. All of my books up until now we’re ept in pristine condition. After learning about Marginalia techniques, I marked up my very first book since I was a toddler. I Am almost finished with « feast your eyes, » by my favorite author, Myla Goldberg. Though not using a terribly organized method, a have found that marking up the book has given me an even better appreciation of her writing. I especially found that summarizing each character as I was reading about them is tremendously helpful, especially when they reappear much later in the story line.

    Myla is also skillful with similes and metaphors, so I have many of them highlighted.

    The book has given me much food for thought, and my summaries of these thoughts will surely help me in writing a review on Goodreads, which I rarely do.

    Thank you for giving me permission to write in my books!

  16. Jason Schultz says:

    AHH! Someone help – the picture with the header of “The Great Restoration”. What book is that from?! That single page caught my attention and now I *MUST* read more! Thanks!
    Oh – I am a heavy note-taker… slightly different method than here, but it works for me. One thing I always do is when I do underline or mark something I want to come back to, I mark the page number inside the back cover. When I’m done, I have a list of pages I can quickly reference, without having to flip through the whole book again.

  17. Dee says:

    I lost nearly all the books I owned in Hurricane Katrina, and since then I do not keep a lot of books, so I can’t imagine marking them up only to give them away.

    • Celeste says:

      I’m sorry to hear of your loss Dee, I cannot imagine how hard it was (and may still be). I tend to read quickly and at times, marking in my book slows me down causing me to “savor” the words and phrases. Not every book, but sometimes in a “ great” book eg. Gentleman in Moscow or Where the Crawdads Sing
      Happy Thanksgiving

  18. Glen says:

    I write in cookbooks, to say whether I or my husband liked (or disliked) a recipe, or if i substituted an ingredient….or omitted it entirely. And MFK Fisher gave me permission for that. Other books, I don’t, because then I see only the notes, the printed page recedes in importance. Maybe I want to pay attention to other things this time, or my interest has changed, and I don’t want distractions, which marginalia and underlining do. (Used textbooks drove me bonkers in college!) And if I find lines I wish to remember, i can write them down in your notebook!

  19. Kristine says:

    As soon as I heard Anne and Charlie Lovett discuss the concept of “marginalia” in an episode of the podcast, I immediately thought of my favorite Billy Collins poem of the same title! I discovered this poem in high school when I was forced to pick a poet to learn about and study :-). I instantly loved it, and it spoke to my high school ambitions of being “literary”! If your book club has not already read this poem together, you definitely should! I believe there are recorded versions you can also listen to. I just love it.

  20. Robin Glossner says:

    I don’t usually write in the PHYSICAL books I read but I have lately purchased my books for my book clubs on Kindle. I like highlighting passages and then referring to them during our discussion, or just looking back over them before discussion to remind myself of what I especially liked.

  21. Suzanne says:

    I’m getting more comfortable with the idea of marginalia since the MMD book club class. I’m really selective about which books I mark in, though. Our library system has very limited funds, so I’ve recently fallen into the habit of donating the nicer books I’ve finished with to add to their catalog or to sell. (Each branch keeps a bookshelf of gently used books for sale at a low price, which they rotate frequently. It’s a permanent book sale- a pretty clever way to generate badly needed funds!)

  22. Marie says:

    I’ve only ever done this for very special books that I want to talk back to, like I am having a conversation with it. I wouldn’t do it to a book I wasn’t planning on keeping -I hate finding books with scribbled in stuff at the library or at second hand bookshops. I think it ruins the book for other people and makes it unreadable.

  23. Carol Woodfin says:

    I use Caran D’Ache Swissmade colored pencils to mark up books, especially non-fiction. I choose a color I like to underline a phrase that catches my attention. I have no system of which color goes with which kinds of thoughts. Totally arbitrary. These pencils can also be used as highlighters in some of the lighter colors.

    • Robin A Killoran says:

      Oooo! I really LIKE this idea! Sometimes ink is too dark and shows through on the back of the page, but colored pencils would be less likely to do so. I’d want to have my colors coded to indicate my purpose: poetic language or wordplay, themes, clues, character traits, etc….of course it would vary according to the book….fiction, history, detective novel, etc. Thanks for the idea, Carole!

  24. Annie Haynes says:

    As I teen and young adult, I underlined in my books frequently. Then I spent 25 years as a librarian so I only use sticky notes and book darts (except for cookbooks, which I write in , as Glen does.) I thoroughly enjoyed Anne and Ginger’s “Why and How to Write…” and I’m moving forward with pencil, pen, and mildliner! And starting a new book journal after watching the recent video about that. 😊

  25. Laura says:

    I mark up books with pencil if I think I will be permanently keeping the book. (I have a book acquisition habit that has expanded to pretty much every available shelf in my house, so I’m trying to pass along books that I am pretty certain I won’t read again.) I got in the pencil habit as a college student with my literature anthologies. Due to their size, those anthologies are printed on good, but thin paper; I felt that using anything besides pencil (highlighter, pen) would’ve made reading the subsequent page more difficult.

  26. Ashley says:

    I don’t live writing in books, but I cannot understand why some people do. I prefer to mark with book darts and then go back and transcribe into a commonplace-type notebook. Writing helps me learn and remember way more than underlining, and I love that I can go read notes from multiple books all in one place.

  27. Karen says:

    I have underlined in my books most of my adult life (just turned 64), and for a while, thanks to college, even used a yellow hi-lighter. But I started finding ink and hi-lighter too intrusive when re-reading. It overshadowed everything else on the page, I found, and made it hard to focus on the rest of the page, or the page as a whole. Now I use light pencil, which doesn’t feel overpowering or intrusive when I re-read a book. I do a lot of re-reading so this is important to me. I also buy a lot of used books and enjoy seeing what other readers found important, but again, if they used a hi-lighter or dark ink it becomes intrusive and overwhelms the page, especially if I don’t agree with them about what’s important, or they’re using it as a textbook. There is no system to my underlining – I underline beautiful writing, turns of phrase, a passage that particularly speaks to me, or that I think is important. I circle words that I’m not sure of and want to look up later, but don’t want to interrupt my reading long enough to get up and drag out the dictionary for. And, yes, sometimes I even write in the margins, agreeing or disagreeing with the author or just adding my own two cents. It’s better than throwing the book across the room! Some books I put post-it notes on so I can go right to a particular page I want to refer back to. Once I might have considered this a Bad Thing, like dog-earing a page or leaving a book face-down because I didn’t have a bookmark, but now it feels more like having a conversation with the author. If John Adams thought it was good practice who am I to disagree with him?!

  28. Nancy Roark says:

    I love this post! I’m honestly not sure how I feel about creating my own marginalia, but I do love reading others marginalia. I actually read a book a few months ago where the collection of marginalia was part of the plot. The book was Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller. Does anyone know of other books with marginalia as a plot device?

  29. I actually just finished writing an essay about (in part) marginalia for my Masters! I’ve never – never! – been one to write in books, which I think was the result of a steady diet of library books as a kid. I learned early to treat books reverentially, maintaining them in pristine condition, and it’s a habit I’ve never quite shaken (even now when I own the books myself). But I was fascinated by the idea of marginalia as a way of engaging with the text (rather than simply defacing it), using the pen/pencil as an act of resistance – Tim Parks wrote a really great piece for the New York Review of Books(? I think) about it. I’ve not quite convinced myself to write in a book – yet! – but it’s definitely changed the way I think about it.

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