Having grown up mostly reading library books, I never really developed a habit of marking up pages while I read; the most I might do was copy down a particularly nice quote. (I still have notebooks full of these passages, a testament to the hand cramps I suffered in pursuit of the #aesthetic
and need to update my Tumblr bio weekly.)
I think the first time I had to annotate my reading — because let’s face it, I don’t like change and will avoid it unless acted upon by an outside force — was for “close reading” in high school. This may have been Cyrano de Bergerac or it may have been Shakespeare, I don’t remember anymore; the point is that once I adjusted, it would not be an exaggeration to say it totally changed the way I think about and approach reading.
Just to be clear: in this post I’ll be using the terms “annotate” and “take [reading] notes” interchangeably to mean the act of recording reactions, nice quotes, potentially triggering content, predictions, and other thoughts while reading.
The Case for Annotating
Annotating can be as detailed or quick-and-easy as you want to make it: there’s a whole scale between typing out reactions to each notable moment (potentially triggering content, character epiphanies, romantic developments, bits of worldbuilding, etc.) and just highlighting your favorite quotes. There’s no “right way” to annotate, no matter what your teacher might say; it’s definitely a process that’s highly adaptable to your preferences and needs, and even to the book you’re currently reading.
When you’re studying for a whole-book unit exam (or, more likely these days, trying to write a coherent review), you don’t want to reread and re-analyze everything. So annotating as you read definitely saves a lot of time and energy, and even helps deepen your comprehension. In addition to jogging your memory, it can also lead you to make new connections and inferences you might not have initially picked up on. Plus, if you’re a frequent rereader like me, it can be fun to look back and see what your younger/past self thought as it compares to what your current self thinks of a passage or character.
Anyone who creates has probably experienced inspiration coming from the most random places, and the most mundane lines might spark an idea — which will inevitably have vanished by the end of the book, so my future self is always super appreciative when my past (or current) self takes a few seconds to jot it down. It might be a canon-divergence fanfic, or a fanart scene or pose, or the start of a fanmix, or a discussion post … or just a specific feeling that I want to hold onto.
The Case Against Annotating
Despite the logical part of my brain advocating for note-taking while I read, I don’t always actually do it. The main reason for this is that I forget, or just don’t feel like it: not necessarily that I’m being lazy, but either I’m so engrossed in the narrative flow that there’s no good place to pause and record my thoughts, or I’m so unimpressed and/or bored that I don’t have any thoughts to record.
Plus, I have yet to find a non-awkward method for annotation. Making notes in my Kindle ebooks is convenient, but the keyboard isn’t very responsive and my device tends to slow down with the more notes I take. I’ve also tried saving my notes in Google Keep, but it’s even more awkward to have to stop and pull out my phone every time I want to make a memo. And when it comes to print books, I still don’t like writing in them; post-its are nice, but I don’t always carry them around with me.
Alternatively I might have too many notes, so that the prospect of going back through them is daunting. Even though my Kindle notes export to Goodreads and GKeep is accessible on my computer, scrolling through everything is not my idea of a fun time, and I’m even less enthusiastic to try and weave all the threads into a coherent review.
Finally, even if I found a solution to the aforementioned issues, honestly I’m a little hesitant to set things down in stone, so to speak. It’s the difference between waiting to see what’ll happen or whether the characters will change your mind about them, and saying definitively that you don’t like what just happened and/or you’re not enjoying the book. There’s probably some empirical evidence to back this up, but I feel less open-minded when I’ve been marking down all my reactions: I’m less likely to be surprised or change my mind.
Do you annotate while you read? If yes, what about the process has or hasn’t worked for you, and what level of detail do you take notes on? If not, would you ever consider it?