Margin notes in books: why bother?

by on April 21, 2010 at 7:51 am in Books, Education | Permalink

Chug asks me:

Tyler, do you scrawl notes in the margins of the books you read?

No.  The key constraint for me is finding the page, not remembering the associated idea, and I find it odd that other people are not also this way.  (That said, I do know I am the outlier.  But really: do you write the notes to actually remember something?  Or do you do it to make the reading experience more real in the first place, much like taking notes in class?)  So in some of my books I dog-ear the pages which are important for me.  In other books I write those page numbers on the inside book jacket. 

In the longer run I expect "annotated" books will be available for full public review, though Kindle-like technologies.  You'll be reading Rousseau's Social Contract and be able to call up the five most popular sets of annotations, the three most popular condensations, J.K. Rowling's nomination for "favorite page," a YouTube of Harold Bloom gushing about it, and so on.

John 4 April 21, 2010 at 8:02 am

You’re not appreciating the motives of a pretty large class of people who (1) underline important points, and (2) write comments (responses, objections, etc.) in the margins. (I know a lot of people who do this.) The underlining takes longer than dog-earing, but it is more aesthetically appealing, and more effective. If I have to look all over the page for an idea, that takes a while. Also, I don’t know if there is only one important idea on a dog-eared page. I can skim through an article where I’ve underlined the important points much more quickly and effectively (in terms of refreshing my understanding of the article) than an article with stars on important pages.

As regards (2) – I often worry that I’ll forget about an objection, and don’t want to. Of course, sometimes I write things like ‘this is BS’, but that’s just venting. Don’t you worry that you’ll forget an idea?

VA Classical Liberal April 21, 2010 at 8:21 am

I don’t make margin notes in books, but I do take notes religiously in other settings.

Even if I never go back to read the notes, just the act of taking them helps me remember the ideas.

Jamie April 21, 2010 at 8:46 am

I write in margins. I also note page numbers on the inside cover, like you, and underline. They work in conjunction- margin notes are generally for cross references to other works (frequently references to my own working journals or code that I’ve written), underlining serves an obvious purpous, and pages numbers are a personalized index.

I think of it all as a bit of an overlay- a personalized annotation method.

Works for me.

Badger April 21, 2010 at 8:59 am

I like my books intact. Keep their resale value, and forces me to keep it all where it really matters: my head.

Candadai Tirumalai April 21, 2010 at 9:32 am

Underlining, writing comments in the
margin, and noting down page
numbers at the front or back of the book
were integral to my teaching years. Since
then I have recorded comments on books
but not in them, which have remained
“unspoiled.”
Some intrepid readers write boldly in
library books, perhaps from irresistible
impulse or conviction or the desire for a
kind of immortality.

Rahul April 21, 2010 at 9:46 am

I find writing notes clarifies my thought process. And what better place than the margin itself.

Justin Martyr April 21, 2010 at 10:00 am

I used to underline but I’ve since abandoned the practice. I don’t think it forces you to digest and absorb the idea as well as taking notes. Taking notes forces you to say something concisely in your own words, and that forces you to understand.

I dog-ear important pages when I am too lazy to take notes. And for books that aren’t as good, and thus which don’t force me to take out my notebook.

Mike Giberson April 21, 2010 at 10:09 am

I often find when re-reading parts of a book that earlier marginal notations puzzle me. Either the point is obvious, so I wonder why I bothered to note it, or it now seems wrong, so I wonder how I believed it in the first place, or it is too vague or cryptic, so I wonder what the hell I was thinking. Sometimes the notes remind me how much more I used to know on topics I no longer follow closely.

In short: Added to my current reaction to the text, my marginalia provides another perspective that I ought to give some credence too, and can enhance my understanding of the text.

Andromeda April 21, 2010 at 10:20 am

It seems to me that particular future is already here, via Sidewiki and Copia. (Albeit, as so often with these things: here, but unevenly distributed.)

Tom April 21, 2010 at 10:28 am

Like others, I rarely write in books. I started highlighting when I started college, but quickly stopped the practice as I found it unuseful and unhelpful. I did a little bit later in college and in law school, to aid in instant location of particular key points or quotes I wanted to note for possible future use. My other books all look unread and unopened, which certainly isn’t the case.

azmyth April 21, 2010 at 11:04 am

I also mark the page rather than take notes. There is really nothing special about the thoughts I was thinking about when I read the book, but it may be an important idea to reference later.

Colorado April 21, 2010 at 11:15 am

For electronic reading I use a great little java program called Snip300. When I come across something I want to remember, I highlight it and hit the Snip button and it is copied to and added to my file called Scrapbook (with a link back to the original). My scrapbook contains a mix of articles and thoughts I can go back to and provides a way to add my comments. It has become one of my most useful items; kind of a personal blog to myself.

Brian Frank April 21, 2010 at 11:33 am

As a non-annotator (though I do underline very good sentences and asterisk key paragraphs — and when reading very difficult passages in philosophy I sometimes transcribe verbatim, which helps me focus) I’ve also wondered too, when coming across something like “John = father” at the place in the text where we learn the simple fact John is the father. Once I watched a tutor instruct a student she must do this. I think a lot of common educational practices are geared towards this organizational style.

Christopher Meyer April 21, 2010 at 11:43 am

I don’t see how anything useful can be written in a margin. When I’m reading something thought provoking, I’ll usually create a .txt file for interesting quotes, summaries of important parts, and my own additions.

dearieme April 21, 2010 at 3:21 pm

“I don’t see how anything useful can be written in a margin.” Then they should print with bigger margins. Fermat would agree.

AndyG April 21, 2010 at 4:30 pm

No notes? Now THAT’s a marginal revolution!

A case of an economist not thinking at the margins, that is.

Ha.

Sal Paradise April 21, 2010 at 7:18 pm

I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted a digitally indexed version of all the books I’ve read just so I can look up passages. Writing the page numbers in the jacket is a great shortcut though — now all I need to do is make an index card telling me which book…

anon April 21, 2010 at 8:34 pm

I’m surprised no one has mentioned Evernote.

Evernote is a solution for saving almost anything online, a giant digital scrapbook. And they now support the iPad.

I have no financial interest in Evernote, just a casual user who no longer scrawls in the margins of books.

k April 21, 2010 at 9:20 pm

i dog ear my books. the problem is , three are too many pages that way that i cant not find what i was loking for. So i do it and when i need something i go to the look inside function in amazon

josh April 21, 2010 at 11:21 pm

“Chug asks me:

Tyler, do you scrawl notes in the margins of the books you read?”

are you serious, tyler? this is the topic of a blog post? you’re choking on your self-importance. as your blog gains in popularity, sycophants will say whatever and sundry. keep your blog interesting by resisting the impulse to indulge yourself the conceits they feed you.

agm April 22, 2010 at 1:08 am

dearimie,

Nicely done :-)

josh,

I feel like some of these banal topics he throws out there to see how other people think, and also to provide a springboard for people to glean ideas from each other. The fact that it still surprises such an outlier as our host to be an outlier, well, to me that just shows how oddball many academics are.

Myself, I rarely write in books since writing in books you don’t own is impolite and I grew up with armfuls of library books. But textbooks and technical writing, those are just made for annotating, whether noting typos or chasing references or drawing diagrams and so on.

anon April 22, 2010 at 9:41 am

@josh

– someone here is choking on their self-importance, but it isn’t our hosts

NYC reader April 22, 2010 at 1:31 pm

An anecdote: some 10 years ago I read Ron Chernow’s wonderful biography of JD Rockefeller, “Titan”. Last year I was laid off and returned to that book, remembering the young Rockefeller’s first job search. My margin notes had highlighted this part: “When [Rockefeller] exhausted his list [of potential employers], he simply started over from the top and visited several firms two or three times. Another boy might have been crestfallen, but Rockefeller was the sort of stubborn person who only grew more determined with rejection.” I relied on that approach, identified and underscored years ago, to get another job in one of the worst job markets in decades.

Bernard Yomtov April 22, 2010 at 6:09 pm

The few times I’ve tried to write in a book, or underline or highlight something, I’ve almost always found it more distracting than helpful. Plus, when I go back it’s doubly distracting. Not only is it visually annoying – especially highlighting – but I start wondering why in the world I thought that was important.

The only exception is technical, mathematical sorts of stuff. There I might put in a note as to how a certain result was obtained, or a reminder about a critical assumption, etc., like what Kevin described, but much less thorough.

Geoff Robinson April 28, 2010 at 2:30 am

I write more and more in books, only in pencil however and for this reason I mostly buy rather than borrow books. Worthwhile to look back on annotations from my 20s which are angry and critical, now in my 40s the most I allow myself is an occasional (!).

jon February 24, 2011 at 12:51 pm

I don’t like underlining or highlighting but I do like margin nots written in pencil (which can later be erased). I certainly like the idea of writing page numbers. Thanks for the idea.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: