Catherine Stine's IDEA CITY

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mark up Your Books, Kids!

My eleventh grade English teacher not only had a film star vibe: emerald eyes, smoky, tortured expression; thick, black hair brushed back in a tousled mess; he was also whip smart about books and writers. I was hooked in by both factors. We went deep into The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald, Animal Farm by Orwell and The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers. This one was probably my favorite at the time.

“Mark up your books!” he insisted, and he meant business. He came around the room and showed us how he marked up his own book. There were all kinds of notes scrawled in the side margins, underlined sections and circled words.
I did what I was told. It worked! It helped draw me into the stories and get up close and personal with them. It helped me remember important themes, lines and transitions. I think of the experience now, of marking up those pristine pages with scribbled explanations, and circled passages that highlighted breathtaking prose, as the equivalent of getting sand in your fingernails from playing in the sandbox as a kid. An essential, organic, down and dirty tryst with fine literature.

As a reader, I jot down words I’m not sure of, right inside the front page of a book, to look up later. As an author, I’ve done the exercise that another writing teacher recommended: Take a children’s book that you admire. Highlight all of the exposition with one color, the dialog with another color, the character descriptions with a third color. You can also do a separate color for each character. And then, examine the results. How much text is devoted to dialog, how much to summary, and so on? Great way to parse out how writers craft their scenes.

As a teacher, I tell my students, “Mark up your books! Note the transformative lines, the most poetic and powerful lines. Do a close, close reading, always holding a pen! Circle the passages where the hero or heroine steps fully into her fate. Highlight the symbolic elements—the coral paperweight in 1984, the descriptions of the Lake in The Seagull. What do these symbols really represent? Why did the author place those descriptions where he did? Compare them. Don’t let me see a pure white book! Let me see your thinking on the pages, your organic process.”

You can see, from my pictures above, that I’ve even been known to jot down a Tarot reading (I don't take these seriously, it's just for fun) on the inside cover of a book. I’ve also started novels on the inside back covers.

Do you mark up your books? Or are you one of those readers, who believe that one should, and must keep a book in its pristine state? If so, why? What’s your surefire method of getting a book under your skin? How do you study a writer’s craft? Do you take notes on a separate piece of paper? How do you truly digest a book?


  1. Hi Catherine! Not sure why I wasn't following you yet. I'm from YAlitchat. Anyway, I totally mark up my books. I'm still not a rabbit ear reader, though. If I mark directly in the book, it has to be for a good reason--like I want to pass this important lesson on to a reader of this particular copy in the future. Mostly, I insert index cards in the book, keep track of what I notice, like, study, dissect, etc...

    That's actually how I got into review books!

  2. I have never marked up books, but now that I'm diving more into them, I may just have to do that. But I'll need a paper copy! My nook is useless for that. ;)

  3. There was a time when I couldn't read without a pen in hand. I wrote all over my books. Just like you, I was directed to do so by one of my teachers and it was the best advice ever. I learned so much more by doing this. As an English major in college, I wouldn't have survived without writing in my books. I took four Lit classes at once; I needed the notes in the margins to help me remember everything or my classes would have all jumbled in my mind. My books have writing, sticky notes to mark pages, etc. all over them.

    I don't think there's anything wrong with writing in books. I'd be honored if someone wrote in one of my books some day!

  4. Hahaha! Yes, I'd be honored if someone took notes in one of my books too! I like the Index card idea. You can jot down notes in kindle, can't you?

  5. I used to do this, but I think I've become a more passive reader as of late. Maybe I need to think about making my relationship with books more interactive again.

  6. Sure wish I'd had an english class/tacher like that...
    ...these days, if I'm studying a book, I do mark it up, but not while reading for leisure. Does make me want to try that...

  7. I mark up, highlight, flag, and tag my books. It's something I also encourage my students to do. It is a great learning tool. It also is a fun to mark up a book and share it with a friend. Pass it around your writer's group and it's like having a silent conversation about the book.

  8. My approach to reading and writing is like my approach to cooking--(except that I love r & w, but cooking isn't that engaging). I have little patience with recipes, and I like to improvise. When I make a note in a book, I look at it later & think, 'what the hell did I mean by that...?' My books bristle with post-it notes but I can't always remember why I stuck them there. I do analyse a book when I have to review it, because I'm forced to, and I enjoy it. But it takes a structure outside myself to enforce...Only shhh...don't tell my creative writing students...

  9. I admit, I DON'T mark up my books. That terrifies me. I love my books. I love the new way they look, the smell, the feel, the clean pages.

    I like to sit very quietly and hold the book in my lap and just READ. I put the words in my head and let them bloom there. Marks, dirt, and pen/pencil marks make a page cluttered and distract me. Isn't that funny?

  10. Dawnall said, having notes in a book is like having a silent conversation with your co-readers when you lend the book. What a very cool idea. I guess I did that when I lent Invisible Man to my son who had to read it in school. He already had my notes in there! I forgot about it until he said they were helpful!

  11. My research material gets marked in all the time. But my precious readables stay in pristine condition. I get ocd about a wrinkled page. I am really bad about it. I do use post it sometimes though.

  12. Hi Catherine! Great post! I've always felt guilty about marking up my books, but now i see that I'm in good company :)