Sometimes the Best Way to Read is to Mark Up the Book
On the Revelatory Power of Annotations
Nineteen years old, I sat at a long table in a small room, a poem in front of me. “Harry Ploughman” by Gerard Manley Hopkins felt impenetrable. A jumble of syntax. Frequent semicolons and dashes choked my reading. While I listened to my professor speak about Hopkins and Robert Bridges, I noticed her own copy of the poem was littered with pencil streaks and pen jabs. My copy was pale. Unmarked, and truly, unread.
In order to understand writing, I have to annotate it. I started with Hopkins. I bought a used edition of his selected poetry and prose, and started writing in the margins of the beige pages. This wasn’t defacing; this was an act of communion.
There’s a difference between line-editing and annotating. When we edit—when we are edited—the goal is to transform a draft into something better, something finished. When I annotate a poem, I am receiving words that have been formed and felt and hoped. “Harry Ploughman” exists without my acknowledgment or enjoyment. I’m there to learn from Hopkins. “Hard as hurdle arms,” the poem’s first phrase, is enough for me to linger on—and we’re a few stanzas away from the combined word “Amansstrength.”
In order to appreciate Hopkins, I had to walk my pencil among his phrases. The spirit of his lines opened; that is not to say that all of his mysteries were revealed, but I could follow the turns of his rhythms. “He leans to it, Harry bends, look.” When I marked that final word of the phrase, the terse stop of look, I was documenting the poet’s accomplishment. Annotation can be an action of reverence.
Ever since, it’s been impossible for me to read a book, or analyze a poem, or follow the routes of an essay without underlining, circling, drawing arrows, making notes in the margins. Most writers and readers I know love to mark up their pages. Look at the used books on your shelves, and you will find the marginalia of previous owners. Donna Masini writes about the experience in her poem, “Marginalia”: “I love to find a stranger’s marker limn / the margin of some argument.” She thinks about a student’s words in the margin of Kierkegaard: “no justice to be found in / the physical world,” and wonders: “Her words? Rag / of some teacher’s gloss?” She then thinks about finding the marginalia of her sister, who recently died: “Inscrutable mail / from my dear one two months dead.”
There’s an intimacy to annotations. I think of another poem, “Used Books” by Luljeta Lleshanaku, who was reading a used copy of Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop. “Who was this reader? A man or woman? / Maybe lying in bed, without anyone around, / heavily underlining, several places in red, / or commenting in blue while / waiting at an airport for a delayed flight.” The narrator wants to join the conversation, but “there’s hardly any space left, not even for shadows.”
Instead, she thinks of how her daughter will mark the pages with pencil, dog-ear the corners, leave behind a blonde strand of hair. The next reader, years later, might not even touch the pages. She concludes the poem with a thought that neither she, nor her daughter, nor the next reader will experience the book all the way to the end. Instead, they will run from it
abruptly the way one evacuates a house,
leaving everything suspended:
the cat scratching the cabinets for food, an abandoned shoe,
the faucet’s thin steam, beds still warm,
the TV screen broadcasting a regularly scheduled film,
and time, which needs an audience to exist.
The act and art of annotation is my fullest participation as an audience. I’m there, on the page, being inspired and enlivened. As a teacher, I’ve noticed that annotations are often a hard sell—but once students recognize annotations as a conversation with words, a way to meander among letters and sentences, they start to enjoy the practice. There’s a kinesthetic release to letting your pen or pencil move, mark your territory, voice your questions. It builds reading confidence; it helps us understand how literature is made—because it puts us there among the phrases.
The philosopher George Santayana once wrote “there are books in which the footnotes, or the comments scrawled by some reader’s hand in the margin, are more interesting than the text.” Maybe. I’ve marked up Sylvia Plath’s wonderfully eccentric “Sow” each year, as some Lenten devotion of sorts, but my words have nothing on hers.
I’ve also learned that if I am stuck on writing a poem or an essay, that annotation is the best source of ideas. Try it: print a paragraph from a novel you love. Clear your desk except for a pencil. Spend a half-hour with those words. Really settle into them. Try to understand the cadence of the sentences, the decisions made. Annotate to appreciate; annotate to understand. Move that pencil within the sentences. Cover the margins. Let your ideas bloom from what has already been created. Allow annotation to help you remember how words can sing: you might not provide the chorus, but to listen and learn is also divine.