Marginalia, or, How I Learned to Stop Grudging and Love Annotation

Flashback to high school English class. In all the classes, English was my refuge, a place of understanding and cheer, until the teacher spoke these dreaded words to the whole class:

“And your book must be annotated, I will check to make sure.”

The groans! The dismay! The seething, simmering mutiny!

You must annotate your book. A simple verb, “to annotate,” becomes loaded down with academic drudgery. It’s not enough that I have to read this awful book, but I have to underline and make teeny notes in the margins to tell the teacher what they already know? This is a chore, a mockery of what reading should be!

Oh, how I hated and despised annotation. The excuses I piled on. A book is a sacred object, you can’t ask me to deface it. I worshipped at the temple of books! Not to mention my skinflint self didn’t want to buy an entire paperback novel just to ruin it.

And I wasn’t alone. Everyone I knew hated to annotate. They would highlight passages at random just so it would look done—the teacher would never inspect that closely. And bookish kids, such as myself, bristled at directions like “underline words that you don’t understand,” I’m sorry, but Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees doesn’t use any words that I don’t understand! What do you want me to do? Pick words that I can decipher easily by context even if I don’t know the precise definition? In other words, you want me to lie?


If I didn’t offer up twenty “new” vocabulary words from each summer reading book, I wouldn’t get full credit. So they twisted the thumbscrews.

Oh, the ways I weaseled out of this chore. My freshman year Literature teacher didn’t specify what edition of Emma we were to read, but we had to annotate it. Instead of buying a copy, I borrowed one from the library across the street.

“Catherine, why didn’t you annotate this book? That was the assignment.”

“But I can’t annotate this,” I exclaimed, showing the library sticker to my teacher. “It’s a library book!

My teacher closed her eyes and (I think) prayed a silent decade of the Rosary. It is possible that she took a moment to curse my name and that of all my ancestors. Meanwhile, Emma Woodhouse herself smiled serenely up at us both from the cover, in a white dress with a deep teal ribbon holding her straw hat in place. Oh, Emma has her flaws, but she, at least, would never use miserliness as an excuse.

Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Mme Seriziat provided the cover image for that copy of Emma. The baby was excised.

Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Mme Seriziat provided the cover image for that copy of Emma. The baby was excised.

Years passed. I resigned myself to this task. Doodled fairies populated the margins of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I relieved my frustration with the dysfunctional characters of Wuthering Heights by inking in my advice over their self-centered laments. Lord of the Flies was admittedly a pretty easy book to annotate—the symbols have all the subtlety of freight trains.

Then, we got to Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. Senior year. It’s a tough, dense read, and I had trouble connecting with it. What would I underline? What would I inscribe into the margins? The prospect was flat, stale, and unprofitable (we read Hamlet that same year).

And then I got an idea. A crossover.

Back in eighth grade, I had discovered the poem “The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race” by Vachel Lindsay. It’s really racist. The poem has an amazing percussive beat. And it’s racist. And its use of assonance and rhyme makes it a wonderful compelling work, especially when read aloud in separate sections, so that the complex percussions of the words come together and make something that you can tap your feet to. It’s also fucking racist.

But at that point, with “Heart of Darkness,” I saw a connection, and it intrigued me.

You see, late in the first verse, “Their Basic Savagery,” the poem’s speaker says, “Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost… hear how the demons cackle and yell, cutting his hands off down in hell.” Our copy of Heart of Darkness included photographs from the Belgian rule of the Congo, showing innocent African boys missing hands, the living proof of Belgian savagery, as ordered by their abominable monarch, Leopold. That is what connected Lindsay’s poem to Conrad’s novel, for me. And though I still found the novel’s prose to be insufferably longwinded and dense, the artifact of the book became a stage, as it were, for Lindsay’s words.

Heart of Darkness is a fairly short work. Between the table of contents and the final page, I found ways to wind Lindsay’s words onto the pages—the theoretical reader, one who did not know Lindsay’s poem as well as I did (yes, I know it’s very racist) would discover words and surprises with each turn of the page. My pencil scritches would cascade past paragraphs, “BOOM BOOM BOOM.” I’d write out another line one word at a time per page, like a flip-animation book. The poetry wound around the prose in silent counterpoint. The margins of the last scene, I filled in with the refrain, “Watch what you do, or Mumbo-Jumbo will… hoo… doo… you,” with the words circling the oblivious, death-worshipping Intended.

I was delighted with what I’d made, even though it was hardly the kind of annotations that an English teacher wanted to see, the kind that showed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I understood the text. But with graduation approaching, I didn’t care anymore about the petty concerns of high school academia. I’d had fun with the project.

Since that day, I have explored the artistic possibilities of annotation. My library includes The Annotated Pride and Prejudice and The Annotated Anne of Green Gables, among many others. These editions help clarify details of Jane Austen’s world, and fill out all of L. M. Montgomery’s literary allusions. I appreciate those notes, which enrich my understanding of the text. But that’s only scratching the surface of what annotation can do. This transformative art turns the passive act of reading into engagement with the physical text. I take good care of my books, but come on, they’re not meant to be religious objects. Mass-market paperbacks or hardcovers, a bestseller on its fifteenth anniversary—thank god, we do not live in a world where books are super rare and precious.

A few stray examples of what an effect annotation can offer, as a companion to the words:

My high school copy of The Great Gatsby has annotations from fifteen-year-old Catherine in blue ink; twenty-year-old Catherine revisited it and wrote in black; twenty-five-year old Catherine wrote in red. It’s like an archeological dig, with the newer scribbles responding to the older ones. Each Catherine was looking at different aspects of one book.

 A hardcover copy of The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, from the library. Little passages underlined here, a star there. As though the book was haunted. Someone was trying to tell me, to point out symbols of what would happen next. My blood went cold when I found the words “my wonderful home with my wonderful family” crammed into the margins around a daydream of Eleanor’s. The ghost was seeping through the paper.

My current annotation project is Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, but I’m challenging myself: minimal words. The bulk of my additions are flowers and herbs, symbolically appropriate. Lilac petals fall on the opening page, and coltsfoot blooms when the unicorn is mistaken for a horse. Poppy for sloth and delay; kelp for the sea. A way to reward my lifelong fondness for floriography.

And then there was that second-or-thirdhand copy of Middlemarch that I found in college. The title page had the words “this book sucks!” written in a small, square hand right over Eliot’s name. To that unknown scrivener, I say: points for being refreshingly direct.  

My largest undertaking relates to Harry Potter. Remember how I said books are not (necessarily) precious objects? Yes, see, I have seven copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: the battered little paperback that first won my heart; then I have a paperback copy of the first British edition; a copy each in French, Latin, and Arabic. I bought the 20th anniversary Ravenclaw Edition in Dunédin, New Zealand, and that’s the copy I treat with the greatest care.

Last in this list, then, is a hardcover first edition that my mother gave me in 2011. She’d picked it up at a yard sale for a quarter. It had highlighter markings, but only in the first two chapters. I annotated that book by hand, page by page. Chamber of Secrets, with Dumbledore’s famous flub describing Tom Riddle as “the last remaining ancestor of Salazar Slytherin,” (emphasis mine) came from a library book sale. My father gifted me Prisoner of Azkaban as a Christmas present, a hardcover to match the other two. Goblet of Fire was also from the library, a first printing wherein James Potter’s shade appeared before his wife, Lily’s.

What did I write in the margins, then?

Pretty much everything.

Literary allusions, social commentary. Linguistic in-jokes. Memes. Fandom memories. Tarot cards. Mythology notes. Color and elemental symbolism. Game of Thrones-inspired House Sigils.

In practical terms (deep breath), the Weasleys all have royal or Arthurian names. Having read The Little White Horse, one of JK Rowling’s childhood influences, I can draw connections between Ms. Goudge’s and Ms. Rowling’s books. The Dursleys’ treatment of Harry reflects Thatcher’s austerity measures—they could provide for him perfectly well, but resent and abuse him instead. “Malfoy” is a French name, suggesting the Norman invasion, which is nouveau riche compared to the Anglo-Saxon inflected “Weasley.” Honey badger (Hufflepuff) don’t give a shit. Many fans assumed that “Ginny” was short for “Virginia,” and they were all wrong. Harry is the Fool, Sirius Black is the Hanged Man, at least in my reckoning. Unicorns are symbols of innocence, but they weren’t always. Gryffindor’s color is red, for passion, and its element is fire, indicative of that House’s strengths and weaknesses. House Potter: Amor Vincit Mortem.

All that, along with London Underground maps, funny faces, stars for moments that I found particularly badass, moments and quotes from fanfictions that have stayed in my heart. Rare and tenuous are memories from my very first time reading the books, or rather when Mrs. Bailey read the books aloud to my fourth grade class. You get the picture.

These books, annotated over the span of years, are a monument to my involvement with Harry Potter, the text, the fandom, the creatrix. They are unique to me. Each note is me throwing out a net, connecting Potter to the real world, other fictional worlds, and the protean fandom as I lived it.

I know this will astonish the shade of fourteen-year-old me, but now, I find annotating to be so much fun.

So fun, in fact, that I invite you to annotate, too. More than invite, I give you permission to “desecrate” a beloved text in order to shift it into a new, unique work of art. Within reason, of course. Harry Potter and The Last Unicorn are not books that are in danger of going out of print anytime soon.

Other points of consideration—it’s easier to write in a book whose spine is already well broken-in. Make sure that the margins are big enough to write in. I usually write in ballpoint pen, because writing in pencil on certain paper stocks makes my skin crawl. I don’t have to worry about ink fading, but it means I must get the words right the first time.

Another important thing: you must be fearless! You must be confident that your feelings and thoughts are absolutely worth putting down, even if it’s silly, even if you refer to a meme that lasted exactly one week, even if your writing is cramped chickenscratch. It’s worth putting down as a tangible memory. If you want to doodle, doodle! If you want to cuss, cuss! I am a passionate proponent that art is for everyone, and that includes literary criticism.

So go on. There’s plenty of room on the page for all of us, for all kinds of marginalia. And be sure to note new vocabulary words.