Writing in the Book

I adored reading Christian Long’s recent article, “Mapping Literary Highlights, Highlighting Literary Maps” at think:lab yesterday. In it, he talks about adopting a class rule that students write in the margins of their books:

Nothing says, “Yes, English class rocks!”, than the early-in-the-year lesson on highlighting our books. Like a good family Bible passed down through the generations, books we read should show highlighter scar tissue on every page. Every page.

Long goes on to mention how he plans to spot-check student books (turn to page 83!) for highlighting and marginal scribbles, and then cites some really fascinating “etch-a-sketch” research about tracking stylistics and patterns in classic novels. Great stuff.

I definitely agree with his notion that writing in a book while you read it is the best way to “process” the ideas and to find them later. I’ll never forget the first time I saw marginal notes in one of my mother’s old college textbooks. I was just a kid, curious about the things on my parents bookshelf, and I started pulling titles off the shelf, browsing around for something that would be as fun to read as the stuff I was reading at the local children’s library. I don’t recall what book it was — possibly a lit anthology — but I found scribbling in the margins. This was contrary to all the times I’d been told not to write in library books, so I thought a sin had been committed and I ran to my mom to let her know what I’d found. When she told me it was HER writing, and that it helped her to learn, I was dumbstruck.

I saw it again, when I was in the Army. I caught a fellow PFC reading Newsweek magazine when he was on a break, underlining things over and over again. I asked him why he did this, because I never fancied the guy was a big reader, let alone scholar, and I noticed he was reading the business pages — something I presumed only a business person would find worth underlining. He said he was teaching himself new words. He explained to me that he underlined all the words he didn’t know, then — after reading the article — copied them into a little book he carried with him — and looked them up later. “Words, my friend,” he said in his Brooklyn accent, “are like money.”

I didn’t adopt his method of vocabulary-building, but I did start marking up magazines more and more. (Though I do highlight vocab sometimes: whether book or magazine, when I read something I’m preparing to teach, I’ll put a box around terms I think I may need to define for the class when we discuss a particular passage.) My method throughout college was to photocopy anything I found in the library that I thought I might possibly want to cite in a paper of my own…and then write ALL OVER them. I have boxes filled with file folders stuffed with these marked up articles from journals and chapters from books in my field, and I have returned to them often for my own research. And my textbooks from college? Fuhgeddaboudit. I could wring pink and yellow and blue ink from the pages. As I tell my students nowadays, reading with a pen in your hand means you’re writing as much as reading — it’s the most natural way to engage in a ‘conversation’ with the text. (For me, it’s more like arguments than conversations… see my article “Question-storming!” for more on my methods).

Now, thirty years after I first discovered my mother’s marginalia, I find myself reorganizing my home library (I’m scanning barcodes from my books into a database on my computer, too, using Readerware!) and I’m seeing just how many books and articles I myself have so sinfully marred up. Paging through these books, I see so many traces of learning…places where I came to new realizations. And lots of questions I raised in the margins that spun me down avenues of research and argument that I’d probably never have taken otherwise. And you know what else? I remember more from those books than I do from the ones I just gently read. I also notice that the books most marked up are the ones I’ve cited the most often in my scholarship.

It’s the “scar tissue” of learning.

All of us who are full-time scholars and writers probably do similar things. My point is that I’m taking to heart Long’s commitment to teaching this process in his classes. I’ve taught marginal notation systems before in my freshman composition courses, and I plan to do it again in the Fall. Students often resist the call to write in books — either because they feel its a sin that the great librarian in the sky will punish, or because they don’t want to ruin the resale value of their books for book-buy-back at the campus store — but I think it’s a learning strategy that they need to be exposed to — just like I was when I stumbled upon that book my mother had scribbled in when I was a kid. Just seeing that it CAN be done, and just TRYING it once can be a transformative moment in a student’s life. It’s hard to convince people to deface a book they paid for, but it’s perfectly sensible. Another copy can always be bought for posterity, if a person genuinely treasures it.

I’d put this one right up there with the time in high school when a teacher told my class once (and I’m paraphrasing): Don’t be afraid to use more than one piece of paper! It’s never a waste to write. And the trees will survive if you recycle… for now, you bought that paper to use it, so quit being so timid with your writing … it’s a tool, so USE IT!

I started filling legal pad after legal pad with course notes, once I was given “permission” to do such a simple thing. Class exercises like Long’s use of marginalia in class can be breakthrough moments for students, moments where a student is given permission to take charge of their own studies, and to actively learn.

Published by

Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

4 thoughts on “Writing in the Book”

  1. These are some great strategies for analyzing complex texts and you’ve presented these ideas in a form that helps students go way beyond “finding the right answer,” so that they see the value in a critical close reading of complex texts.
    In “Intro to Literary Study,” I had students bring in a photocopy of an academic article, and highlight all the claims in one color, and the evidence in a different color, just so they could get a sense of how important evidence is to academic writing.

  2. While I understand the pedagogical reasons for encouraging margin notes, I’ve always hated marginalia for a couple of reasons. First, when I re-read the book – as I’m likely to do with something important enough to mark up – I don’t want to be influenced by how or what I was thinking when I read it the first time. And secondly, I like to pass important books on to important people – and I don’t want them to feel stifled or influenced or distracted by my thoughts about a work. I can’t stand reading other folks’ marginalia.
    I do, however, keep a small hard cover notebook and will make notes about a work in there, along with page numbers. I do agree that actually writing something about a passage helps me to process the information. I just don’t want those initial thoughts and reactions to stand as a forever testament.

  3. Mike — We had a chance to connect via email and blog comments nearly 4 years ago when I first started “think:lab”. I enjoyed your work a great deal as a then ex-English teacher (while I was working as a school planner); I’m flattered to run into you again now that I’m back in the classroom teaching literature.
    Like you, I’ve always taken for granted the ‘act’ of ‘active’ reading, as if my students showed up day one with a) the instincts and b) the big picture of what margin notes did for us as readers and learners. I stress — over and over and over — that they need to mark up their texts, but I’ve never really stressed the ‘how’. Instead, I show them my pages in a casual way, constantly underline in my texts as they point out key quotations, and always ask, “What page was that on?” when they point out a key idea/question.
    This year, however, I’m going to talk about the literal act of writing in texts, and definitely I’m going to talk about various strategies/styles.
    Love to pick your brain as to how you’ll do it at the post-secondary level. Perhaps we can Skype or find another way to brainstorm in the coming year.
    BTW, one small ‘detail’. I’m a ‘he’, not a ‘she’. You nailed the “Christian” detail, but might have unconsciously read it as “Christina”. Since I deeply appreciate the amount of time you spent walking through my post on your own blog (as well as leaving a comment on my own site), I definitely will shake it off. But my wife (who you see at “think:lab” with my son in the sidebar) might be a bit concerned about my new gender assignment (he smiles).
    Cheers, Christian
    P.S. Let me know if you have a Skype account.
    [REPLY FROM ARNZEN: THANK YOU, Christian. Great response. I’m going to revise the gender pronouns in my original post! Appreciate the correction. I think I assumed the photo on your about page (your wife, I now see) was you! Unfortunately, I don’t skype, but I’d be happy to exchange e-mails. — Mike A.]

  4. Mike — Thanks for the gender re-assignment (he smiles). My wife (in the photo with my son, as you noticed) is far better than I am, so in some sense the mistake was appreciated on that front.
    You have my email address. Would you mind sending me a quick note so I can reply with some ideas/questions with regards to the writing and literature programs I run at school, and perhaps ways for you to have an impact on my students? Plus, I’d like to hear more about how you’re going to work with teaching the ‘margins’ along the way with your own students’ notetaking, question-storming (great phrase, BTW!).
    “Frankenstein” shows up for my students around December. Given your passion for that genre, perhaps there might be a way to invite you into our class virtually (and then you can officially claim Skype status, a wonderful free service that allows for free video conferencing for instance).
    Again, thanks for the pronoun shifting.
    Cheers from Texas — Christian

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