February 21st, 2022
Despite always being a bookworm and loving books, in school I absolutely despised English Literature, because I hated analysing books. I just wanted to read a good story and be done with it. I felt it absurd to care about looking for symbols in colours or objects, I wasn’t good at it and I just didn’t think that was how books were supposed to be read.
Cut to me leaving school and, gaining nothing but enjoyment from it, I started analysing my books, and I fell in love with it. Deep diving into the pages, actively looking for those literary devices I’d scoffed at in school gave me a whole new appreciation for literature and writers.
So now I’m one of those readers who must always have a book in one hand and a pencil in the other. I have a drawer full of highlighters, sticky tabs, pens and pencils for all my annotating needs, and a bookshelf with multiple copies of my favourite books so I can have one for annotating and one just for casual rereads.
You’re probably curious about why I do this, what can I possibly gain from it, and is it worth marking up a book and ‘ruining it’ for anyone else after me. Well here’s why I do it, how I do it, and why you should too!
Why Do I Annotate?
As I said before, analysing a book for literary devices was never something I enjoyed in school (and my grade definitely showed that). That didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading. As a kid I loved childrens classics like Peter Pan and The Famous Five books and in high school I read Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre not because I studied them, but for fun. And I fell in love with them.
I think, when I left school, I started missing what I’d previously taken for granted, and I began to seethe benefits of deep diving into the meanings and themes these authors had so cleverly woven into their stories.
When I started writing book reviews of my own I started by taking notes in a notebook, which I still do. But that soon evolved into using sticky tabs to mark places in books I found where important or I wanted to remember. That evolved into underlining, highlighting, and now I have a system that allows me to annotate all of the things in books I personally look for.
How Do I Annotate?
It started with a notebook. Lined pages and a pen, and I started thinking about what I was reading. This was thanks to blogging. Since I was 14 I watched Booktube and read book blogs and eventually I wanted in on the action. Finding this community changed my perspective on books. I still read them for fun but sharing my thoughts enhanced my love for them.
After a while, sticky tabs became the in thing. They’re useful to mark specific passages and points in the story I think are important or just my favourite parts. But it was more of the aesthetic thing for me. I mean, all those colours popping out of the pages, running your hand along them, it’s just so visually pleasing.
I think the first time I highlighted a book (other than being forced to in school) was either Pride and Prejudice or Harry Potter. It was a favourite book basically. Something with a lot of quotes I loved. I chose to highlight them with a pink highlighter because I wanted them to stand out on the page, so all I had to do when looking for those passages was flick through the book and they would for sure catch my eye.
This is when my annotation system evolved. Eventually I decided I wanted to colour coordinate what I was highlighting, and now whenever I annotate I know I’m looking for somthing like this.
The colours shift around. Sometimes I use green for character, sometimes for context. That’s because I tend to find a lot more character stuff than context stuff, and I’ll end up using the green ink/tabs quicker than all the other colours. Writing a key at the beginning of the book helps me keep track of what colour I used for what.
This is more of a recent thing, and something I wish I’d thought of sooner. If you want to start annotating books, this is the way I’d recommend you do it. Whilst highlighting definitely stands out more, I also find it makes the book messy and the darker colours made some words almost unreadable.
So I bought a packet of gel pens to try and it makes for much neater annotations and doesn’t completely ruin a book, if that’s something you’re worried about. The ones I use are from WHSmiths and they’re perfect. They have multiples of every colour, they don’t weep through the page, and they’ll last a lot longer than a packet of highlighters would.
I also use pencil to underline in some books if I don’t want to permanantly mark the pages.
When Do I Annotate?
I only ever permanantly mark a book on a reread, when I know whether there’s a lot I want to unpack or not. First time reads I just use my journal, sticky tabs, or a pencil if I’m particularly enjoying it.
But really annotating, with highlighters or coloured pens, is usually something I reserve for classics or absolute favourite books, and I always use secondhand copies. I personally couldn’t bring myself to mark up a new book in perfect condition. So I buy copies that look a bit worse for wear, so I don’t feel bad about using pen in it. That’s why I own two copies of all of my favourite books…
I know this is a much debated subject so let me know what your thoughts on annotating is!