Why Annotating Your Books is Both Good and Bad for You 

This is a photograph of some of my annotations–about 10 or more years’ worth!

Follow BookTok or Bookstagram long enough, and you’ll doubtless see pictures and video of influencers annotating their books. They’ll use aesthetic wash tape and “flags” as well as colored pens and highlighters to make notes as they work through their latest find. Annotating books is almost a niche industry at this point rivaling scrapbooking. 

But what are the real benefits of annotating books? You can always cite notions like it makes you more “mindful” of what you’re reading, or that it’s journalling. That may be true, but it doesn’t go far enough and nowhere are any of the disadvantages mentioned. 

I have been annotating books for over 15 years and here’s my take on why you should, and should not annotate your next novel. 

First off, let’s get one thing out of the way: you don’t need a bunch of special supplies. 

All you need is a pencil and eraser that erases cleanly. I prefer Staples brand mechanical pencils or Bic mechanical pencils far and above anything else. And make sure it’s the thickest you can get. This ensures that you don’t break off the point too quickly and there’s no chance of bleed-through. 

Why the eraser? You’re a little less self-conscious or nervous about marking up your books with a pencil and then there are the inevitable misspellings, or having to start over on your note because you ran out of room. 

I grew up in a single-income, military household. We were not well off by any means. I didn’t grow up watching cable because we couldn’t afford it. New clothes for the school year? I didn’t get those either. I was never in fashion growing up. Luxuries were anything from pencils with erasers on them to pre-packaged foods like Poptarts and Hot Pockets.

So, when, as an adult, I can tell you that most of the products for annotating are a waste of money, you can believe it! My one concession is that I use mechanical pencils and not traditional. 

And if the margins don’t have enough space? Composition notebooks are cheaper than Post-Its and you get more space to write whatever it is you need to. 

Consider why you want to annotate your book because part of annotating is using your head. 

Ah, the old “it’s all about mindset” line again! Yes, you need to have a purpose behind annotating. If you’re just doing it to look cute or to follow a trend, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. This is supposed to be a mind exercise. Not an art project. If you will not think deeply and try to connect what you are reading currently with anything else, then you may need to re-think about why you’re doing it. 

Yes, that’s just my opinion, but I have very good reasons for it. Remember, 15 years of annotating without washi tape or post-it notes, here. 

Here’s why you should annotate: you want to better understand what you are reading, OR you have found something in the text that reminds you of another work. Your goal is not just to gain more insight at the moment, but to leave notes for yourself when you re-visit that work at a later date. You’re building a body of knowledge for yourself to develop your own opinions, beliefs, and ideas about the world and your place in it.

This means you also need to have the intention of re-reading that book again. Now, you can annotate with no intention of re-reading the book again. That’s perfectly fine. There are thousands of novels out there that don’t really need to be annotated because they’re “brain candy.” 

You may highlight the odd quote here or there, but overall, these aren’t great works of literature that do anything but entertain you in the moment. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve read dozens of those books myself. 

But don’t spend time and money annotating them if you’re never going to read them again. 

Annotating has multi-generational benefits. 

When I was still elementary age, my mother started reading more complicated books to me. I can remember Mom reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to me at age 5 or 6. At age 7 or 8, she started reading a now disused, but still very classic book, Pilgrim’s Progress. For those of you not in the know, Pilgrim’s Progress was written in the late 1600s, after Cromwell’s fall from grace and during the Restoration. 

The English wasn’t quite Shakespearean, but it was up there. Well, I decided I desperately wanted to know what happened next, so I started reading it on my own. By this point, I was being homeschooled so I had more time to read what I wanted. 

And I desperately wanted to know what happened to Christian as he faced Apollyon. I couldn’t necessarily understand the dictionary definition of the meanings of all the words, but I could definitely tell what was happening. Needless to say, all the adults were very impressed. 

Three years later, I asked my mother for Shakespeare. 

She gave me her college copy of Macbeth. It had all her annotations in it from college. Which meant that even if the words didn’t have a footnote, I had a little extra help in deciphering the meaning and, at that age, having Mom’s notes was far more helpful than anyone else’s footnotes. At age ten, I still trusted my parents more than I trusted anyone else. 

Had she not started me early on the classics, and had she not annotated (and kept) her copy of Macbeth, I doubt I would still be here, 26 years on, reading Shakespeare and making notes in the margins just as she did. 

Annotating is one generation communicating directly to another, and when that generation is your own child, it’s a ripple effect like no other. The irony? My mother hated reading and double majored in math and music. 

But she deserves the credit for getting me hooked on Shakespeare, hands down. 

Annotating gives you a richer experience.

Why is this important when you’re reading? Well, if you revisit a book several years down the road and you do it tabula rasa, you are going to miss out on some of the richness that comes with really getting to know a writer and a written work. This is especially true of the classics. 

Reading your own annotations later in life is one of the best forms of self-evaluation. Looking at how your ideas and feelings change about a story can tell you a lot about what’s happened in your life, and how you’ve changed as a person. 

Your previous thoughts on a subject may change, but your previous annotations give you a place to start. If you start with a blank slate every time, then you can’t objectively evaluate your own thought process or get to know either the writer or the written work unless you have a place to start from. 

Most truly great works are supposed to read multiple times, and they lend themselves to careful annotation and study over a long period. What you detested in high school may end up being your favorite work. 

When is annotating bad? When it distracts you from actually reading. 

Personally, I find annotating is best on the second read–not the first unless you’re underlining a quote you particularly like. The first time you read something new, the plot line, characters, themes, and motifs will all be new to you. 

Unless you’ve read this particular author before, or the annotations are necessary to understand the text, then I would perhaps save the in-depth note taking until you’ve finished it and are able to read it a second time. Concentrate on reading, immersing yourself in the plot, and familiarizing yourself with the world inside the book. 

Annotating at this point will only distract you, and possibly make you lose the plot. Literally. For classic novels, like The Count of Monte Cristo, that have several moving parts, this can prove disastrous. Older novels from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can be harder to follow and you need all your concentration to keep up with them. 

That, and do you really want to bother with meticulous notetaking before you’ve really had a chance to enjoy yourself? You only get to read a novel for the first time once, after all!

What are your favorite ways of annotating books? Let me know in the comments below! 

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