Shelf Life: Marginal Reflections – The Power of Annotation

(Bella Pettengill • Student Life)

I’m the rare person who stays endlessly entertained by the books I read in high school. I regularly flip through the classics of standardized English curricula (such as “The Great Gatsby” and “Frankenstein”) for fun.

I don’t do this for the stories, but rather for the scribbles in the margins – my sophomore, junior and senior annotations entertain me more than any English literature classic ever could. Although many of my most illuminating notes and amusing scribbles were meant only for my eyes, the greatest joy I found in annotating was, surprisingly, collaborative. I understand those who enjoy annotation as a solo business. At the same time, I recently discovered something unique and beautiful about annotation for and with other people.

For my friend’s nineteenth birthday, I annotated a copy of “Ender’s Game” for him. It’s a process that took me weeks. I reread carefully, commenting on everything: my favorite – and least favorite – moments and scenes, the most disturbing parts, the aspects that confused me during my first reading (CM1) and the pieces that still confused me nineteen years old. The gift was the book itself, but I also gave it my reading experience. When I annotate books for people, I try to guide them in my thoughts, to let them think along with me. The annotations are an invitation in my mind.

This year I received my first annotated book (“Where The Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens) from another friend for Christmas. It was adorned with sticky tabs and color-coded highlights, along with neatly penciled explanations of what my friend loved and hated, what drove her crazy, how she felt. It was an act of love, one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. When I started the novel on a plane trip to Seattle, I found myself turning my head several times to the empty seat to my left. Reading the book with her commentary—oddly biting, caring, and vocal—I was convinced she was sitting right next to me. His annotations allowed me to read this book with her, even though we were apart.

My copy of “The Argonauts” by Maggie Nelson was annotated four times. The first time, by myself. The second time, by a boy I talked to in high school. (I trusted him with my annotations, I trusted him to annotate them for me). The third, by me, again. The fourth time, by someone I briefly dated. Reading it again now, I’m amazed at how our scribbles blend together in the margins. Our writing styles converge and diverge: one of us used a mechanical pencil, another wrote in dark, broad 6B strokes. I see points where the people I have cared for agree and disagree with me, where we respond to each other, where our thoughts overlap.

I love “The Argonauts”, and I think I will for a while. Surprisingly, I also like these annotations. Rereading this book isn’t sad or lonely – I’m not bitter about those past writings, notes from people I maybe don’t even talk to anymore. Instead, these annotations anchored me in time. As I explore the convergence of our reading experiences, I remember why I cared when I did.

Reading can be a solitary act. Annotating intentionally, like a gift, makes it a point of connection. Now, when I lend books to friends, I hope they come back with split spines, bent pages, scribbled margins. I also want to be invited into their minds.

Kate Jones PO ’24 is from Seattle, Washington. Her favorite annotation tool is a Zebra Sarasa Clip gel pen.