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How and Why to Annotate a Book

by Nick Otten
Clayton High School
Clayton, Missouri

Note-Taking vs. Annotation
Most serious readers take notes of some kind when they are carefully considering a text, but many readers are too casual about their note-taking. Later they realize they have taken notes that are incomplete or too random, and then they laboriously start over, re-notating an earlier reading. Others take notes only when cramming for a test, which is often merely "better than nothing." Students can easily improve the depth of their reading and extend their understanding over long periods of time by developing a systematic form of annotating. Such a system is not necessarily difficult and can be completely personal and exceptionally useful.

First, what is the difference between annotating and "taking notes"? For some people, the difference is nonexistent or negligible, but in this instance I am referring to a way of making notes directly onto a text such as a book, a handout, or another type of publication. The advantage of having one annotated text instead of a set of note papers plus a text should be clear enough: all the information is together and inseparable, with notes very close to the text for easier understanding, and with fewer pieces to keep organized.

What the reader gets from annotating is a deeper initial reading and an understanding of the text that lasts. You can deliberately engage the author in conversation and questions, maybe stopping to argue, pay a compliment, or clarify an important issue—much like having a teacher or storyteller with you in the room. If and when you come back to the book, that initial interchange is recorded for you, making an excellent and entirely personal study tool.

Below are instructions adapted from a handout that I have used for years with my high school honors students as well as graduate students.
Criteria for Successful Annotation
Using your annotated copy of the book six weeks after your first reading, you can recall the key information in the book with reasonable thoroughness in a 15- to 30-minute review of your notes and the text.

Why Annotate?
  • Annotate any text that you must know well, in detail, and from which you might need to produce evidence that supports your knowledge or reading, such as a book on which you will be tested.
  • Don't assume that you must annotate when you read for pleasure; if you're relaxing with a book, well, relax. Still, some people—let's call them "not-abnormal"—actually annotate for pleasure.
Don't annotate other people's property, which is almost always selfish, often destructive, rude, and possibly illegal. For a book that doesn't belong to you, use adhesive notes for your comments, removing them before you return the text.

Don't annotate your own book if it has intrinsic value as an art object or a rarity. Consider doing what teachers do: buy an inexpensive copy of the text for class.

Tools: Highlighter, Pencil, and Your Own Text

1. Yellow Highlighter
A yellow highlighter allows you to mark exactly what you are interested in. Equally important, the yellow line emphasizes without interfering. Before highlighters, I drew lines under important spots in texts, but underlining is laborious and often distracting. Highlighters in blue and pink and fluorescent colors are even more distracting. The idea is to see the important text more clearly, not give your eyes a psychedelic exercise.

While you read, highlight whatever seems to be key information. At first, you will probably highlight too little or too much; with experience, you will choose more effectively which material to highlight.

(Choose the following link to view highlighting on sample pages from Walden:)
Figure 1: Walden, pp. 212-213 (.pdf/1.6MB)
2. Pencil
A pencil is better than a pen because you can make changes. Even geniuses make mistakes, temporary comments, and incomplete notes.

While you read, use marginalia—marginal notes—to mark key material. Marginalia can include check marks, question marks, stars, arrows, brackets, and written words and phrases. Create your own system for marking what is important, interesting, quotable, questionable, and so forth.

3. Your Text
Inside the front cover of your book, keep an orderly, legible list of "key information" with page references. Key information in a novel might include themes; passages that relate to the book's title; characters' names; salient quotes; important scenes, passages, and chapters; and maybe key definitions or vocabulary. Remember that key information will vary according to genre and the reader's purpose, so make your own good plan.

(Choose the following link to view the inside cover of Walden with sample handwritten notes:)
Figure 2: Walden, inside front cover (.pdf/844KB) 
As you read, section by section, chapter by chapter, consider doing the following, if useful or necessary:
  • At the end of each chapter or section, briefly summarize the material.
  • Title each chapter or section as soon as you finish it, especially if the text does not provide headings for chapters or sections.
  • Make a list of vocabulary words on a back page or the inside back cover. Possible ideas for lists include the author's special jargon and new, unknown, or otherwise interesting words.
Just how idiosyncratic and useful can annotating be? A good example is in William Gilbert's De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (On the Magnet, Magnetic Bodies, and the Great Magnet the Earth), one of the seminal works of the Renaissance, published in the year 1600. Gilbert was the personal physician of Queen Elizabeth I and has been called the father of experimental science in England. Robert B. Downs, in Famous Books Since 1492, writes that in De Magnete, Gilbert annotated the text prior to publication by putting stars of varying sizes in the margins to indicate the relative importance of the discoveries described. Gilbert also included in the original edition a glossary of new scientific terms that he invented.

Okay, a self-annotated book on magnetism by a celebrity doctor from the time of Shakespeare, with variable-size stars in the margins and a list (in the back) of his own new vocabulary words that changed science as we know it—that's useful idiosyncrasy.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1960.

Illustration Credits
Figure 1: Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1960. Photo by Nick Otten.
Figure 2: Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1960. Photo by Nick Otten.

Nick Otten has taught for nearly 40 years—the last 20 at Clayton High School—specializing in American literature, creative writing, and student publication. He has also been adjunct professor at Webster University in St. Louis for 30 years, specializing in teacher training in the Master of Arts in Teaching graduate program. He has published widely on reading, written an editorial column in English Journal, and presented workshops for teachers in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and China.

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