As a PhD-student without funding, I use a lot of books from my local university library. Some people might think it barbaric of me, but I like to make notes in the books in pencil. When I’m reading, I underline all parts important for my research, or I write something it makes me think of in the margins. This way I don’t have to interrupt my reading every time I come across something interesting to copy it into my notes: I do the copying at the end of a chapter, book, or article.

Luckily, I’m not the only one who works this way. And although it can be confusing (was this my underlining or someone else’s?) there are also a few things I really like about other people’s annotations.

First of all, it makes me feel part of a community. As a self-funding PhD-student, I have very little academic contacts at the moment. I speak with my supervisor and a few friends, and of course at the moment, due to the corona crisis, I see them a lot less often than I used to. I have no classes to follow or to teach, I don’t have a workplace at the university I can go to every day so I can talk to people at the coffee machine. It can get a bit lonely, and annotations make me feel connected to other academics. Knowing that someone else read this book as well, silently, maybe whilst drinking the same kind of tea I am drinking, makes everything a bit less lonely.

Of course, other people’s annotations can also give new insights. Most of the time it’s just underlining, but I have also read notes like “WRONG!” in the margins, which challenges me to look more critical at a text and try to see why someone might have a problem with the statement being made. Currently I’m reading a work with a lot of stars drawn at different points and sometimes and enthusiastic “YES” with is fun because I’m a visual thinker and I just imagine someone completely lighting up when they came across the sentence that made them write that.

In more heavily annotated books, it can also be a fun puzzle. Can you figure out what someone was researching? What would their views be? Why didn’t they make a note here, it seems like it would fit their argument? When reading a more boring text this little scavenger hunt can really help me to keep going.

Librarians will probably hate me for taking this standpoint, but just remember: with many old manuscripts, it is the text in the margins that many scholars are now most interested in, as they help us understand the research people did in other times. So who knows, maybe one day someone is gonna read my annotations and it’ll help them reconstruct the mice-eaten manuscript of my dissertation.

One thought on “On the poetics of annotated books

  1. Geinig stukje

    Van: BOOKSIEN Verzonden: zondag 15 november 2020 13:08 Aan: pieter.maessen@ziggo.nl Onderwerp: [New post] On the poetics of annotated books

    booksien posted: ” As a PhD-student without funding, I use a lot of books from my local university library. Some people might think it barbaric of me, but I like to make notes in the books in pencil. When I’m reading, I underline all parts important for my research, or I w”

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