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Do You Have a System for Marginalia?
Plus: introducing the newest member of the Close Reads community, current reading schedules, what I am reading around the bookish web, and an anecdote from the shop.
We have some exciting news in the Close Reads community: On Monday, Sean’s wife, Heather, gave birth to a handsome son, Brendan Michael Longfellow Johnson! Look at this guy:
I’m sure he’s already storing up all kinds of bookish knowledge and enthusiasm to be released upon the world later. Please join us in celebrating with the Johnsons. Keep Heather and Brendan in your prayers and raise a glass to them this evening, if you think of it.
My System for Marginalia
Over the years I have often been asked whether I have a system for marginalia, for marking up books as I read them. And I do. Or at least I do now. For a long time it was a bit haphazard, customized to each book, varying from genre to genre, a smörgåsbord of symbols and scribblings to indicate various notations. But as active reading has become more and more a part of my job, and as I’ve had to read hundreds and hundreds of pages simultaneosly, I’ve developed a consistent system of markings to help me read with purpose. I’ve had to codify my approach to reading, I suppose you might say.
I know many of you highlight—and, of course, my dad even developed a useful system for highlighting—but I don’t prefer to see that much color in my books, so I use a pencil or pen, ideally a Blackwing Matte pencil or my new favorite pen, the Big Idea Design click pen, both of which are absolutely worth the investment for their durability and how kindly they treat the paper.
There are two kinds of marks (or sets of symbols) most readers use. There’s marginalia—notes and symbols in the margins of the page—and in-line marks. And I have found that I am most successful when I use them in distinct ways that complement each other.
When marking in-line, I use underlines to indicate that a line or series of lines indicates the main point of whatever I am reading. This is especially useful when closely tracing the direction of an argument or presentation in non-fiction. So each paragraph, especially in a book that I am finding a bit tricky to follow, will typically have at least one line underlined to indicate the main thrust of the argument. I only use underlines for this. I don’t underline for any other purpose.
Meanwhile, I also use brackets, but always in connection with a bit of marginalia—a symbol or a note. That is, I use the brackets to indicate which line(s) correspond to the symbols or comments left in the margins.
Which brings me to those symbols. This where the system gets both a tad confusing and more robust, so I will just list the symbols here. I primarily use five symbols:
! - I use the exclamation point to indicate that something is funny or memorable. I don’t really know why I settled on this symbol, but I did. You could use a smiley face if you wanted to. Or anything, really.
# - I use this pound/hashtag symbol to indicate that a passage is worthy of commonplacing. It makes it easy to go back when I am finished with a book, chapter, or essay and copy it into my commonplace notebook. This is my “whoa, that’s brilliant (in some way)” mark. I used to put quotation marks in the margin for this, but that doesn’t stand out as much.
? - This is pretty self-explanatory. I use a question mark to indicate that I need to think about the lines in the brackets. It might mean that I disgree with the author and need to think about whether I should agree, or it might simply mean that I’m not sure what’s going on in the passage. In short, it means there’s a dissonance I want to note and perhaps address.
* - I use a star, usually hurriedly drawn, to notate that the bracketed lines make up what seems to be a major plot point in fiction or are in some other way worth returning to and remembering. I use this a lot when prepping for the show. I’ll draw a star in the margin to make it easy to find a passage for discussion. I will also use this if I don’t want to underline a whole paragraph, but still want to indicate that a whole paragraph or even a whole page is absolutely crucial/essential.
∞ - This one is a bit hard to replicate on a keyboard, but I draw a mark that looks roughly like an infinity symbol, a couple of slanting loops, indicating that two passages near one another are clearly playing off each other or are related in some way. Two circles, looped together. It’s a little convoluted but it works for me.
Of course, I also write notes in the margins fairly often, too. These might include a reminder that a passage seems to echo another one earlier in the book. Or I will write a question in the margin that I think might be worth discussing on the show. And sometimes I simply circle names, places, or words I want to remember or amplify.
From time to time, I think about expanding this list of symbols to be even more specific. For example, I have contemplated using a symbol that is used only to notate schemes/tropes or that only highlights objective correlatives or marks passages that make me wonder if a narrator is unreliable. But in the end I just write “OC” or “UN?” next to the lines/brackets in question. I think it’s better to keep it simple and then expand on rare occasions.
For a lot of people—most people, perhaps—underlining here and there is enough. But I think there’s something to be said for active, thoughtful reading that engages multiple senses. I think it’s valuable to find ways to physically interact with books and this particular approach works for me in preparing to discuss books.
I would love to hear from you. Do you mark up books as you read them, whether in preparation for teaching/discussing them, or simply out of enthusiasm? If so, do you have a system? What symbols do you use? Maybe I will find some new ones to add to mine!
An Anecdote from the Shop
A few weeks ago an elderly couple came in to the shop, having driven about 45 minutes, without calling ahead, to see if we had any titles by a Christian fiction writer named Gilbert Morris. Morris wrote more than 150 titles across twenty-plus series, many of which were published during the same calendar year. It seems he would regularly publish five or six books in the same year. The Christian fiction James Patterson, I suppose. This customer—who, incidentally, was wearing the squeakiest brown leather jacket I have ever encountered—owned 100+ of Morris’ books but wanted to fill out his collection and acquire them all. He had a small, weathered legal pad, inside a protective leather case, on which was scribbled the titles of all of Morris’ books that he owned, organized by series. It was rather impressive. Lots of people come in with hand-written lists, but rarely to this degree of obsession. Most interesting, however, was the fact that in this leather case he also carried a photograph of Morris and his wife, from probably the early 1990s, standing arm-in-arm outside their home. The photograph was slightly yellowed, aging in the way photographs do, worn on the edges, but without any crease marks or signs of bending. He seemed to really treasure that photograph. I suppose he must have begun some kind of correspondence with the man, otherwise I’m not sure how he would have acquired such a picture. It certainly wasn’t a promotional headshot. I see all kinds of super fans who use all sorts of tools to track what they read, but never anything quite like this. I was sorry not to have been able to help them on their search, but so it goes in the world of the indie bookshop. They went on their way merrily enough. I hope he finds what he’s looking for.
Here’s the schedule for the next week few weeks:
February 20: The Netanyahus: Chapters 9-12
February 27: The Netanyahus Q&A
March 6: Pygmalion (entire play)
March 13: Pygmalion Q&A
Our current subscriber-exclusive book is the first book in C.S. Lewis’ Ransom Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, the schedule for which we have had to adjust a bit with the birth of Sean’s baby. Here’s the plan for the next three weeks:
February 24: Chapters 8-17
March 3: To the end
March 17: Q&A episode
Around the Bookish Web
For the Goldberry Arts newsletter, Bethany curated a wonderful collection of paintings that take you through the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is really worth checking out:
Austin Kleon’s newsletter is one of my very favorites and his recent post about Roget’s Thesaurus is an example why. He even took down the paywall on the post, so you really must check it out. There’s no reason not to! “It turns out that Roget‘s Thesaurus is not at all what I thought it was. It is weirder and much more interesting. In the words of Ted Gioia, ‘Roget's Thesaurus is an oddball philosophy of language masquerading as a reference book.’ “
Anthony Esolen wrote about the history of the word “valentine” and it’s interesting as always. It turns out that Hallmark may not have invented the holiday after all. It was the French, during the Middle Ages.
Thanks to Prufrock, I read this article on the discovery of a medieval pantry stocked with spices! “The researchers found spices from far-flung locales, including ginger, clove, peppercorns, dill, mustard and caraway, as well as the remains of fruits and vegetables like cucumbers, grapes, raspberries and blackberries. They also found almonds and hazelnuts.”
Meanwhile, Joel J. Miller contemplates “why build a personal library.” Here’s a sample: "If you’re looking to better understand yourself, look back at the books you’ve read. Assembling a personal library of whatever size is an act of self-revelation. ‘No matter what a person studies,’ says novelist Eugene Vodolazkin in Solovyov and Larionov, ‘above all he is studying himself. . . . Accidental topics do not exist.’
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading.
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