There is a great scene in Margery Williams’s 1922 children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit. The titular character begins questioning the old “Skin Horse” about the process of transforming from a mere toy into something more real. As the Horse explains:
“It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
I always think of this conversation when I asked my opinion on writing in books. Often people object to “messing up” new books or books that look pretty on the shelf. Perhaps if you are collecting books in the same way a person might collect “mint-in-the-box” action figures of Captain Kirk to sell them one day on eBay, then I can see the draw to such an approach. However, if you have books because you intend to read them rather than preserve them, then I cannot emphasize enough how important I think it is that you write in your books! This process is called annotation, which means simply adding notes to a book or essay as you read it, either in the margins or on a separate paper. Aside from demonstrating that you love your books, this approach to reading has a couple of key benefits which I’d like to highlight.
Annotating helps you to understand the book or essay or story on the first read.
Have you ever read the same page four times, only to throw your hands up in frustration and yell to the heavens, “I don’t get it!” It is not an uncommon experience (though the yelling may vary). Annotating can help you come away from a book in a far more peaceful manner. Because annotation means you have to read actively. You’re looking for keywords, underlining main ideas, and writing questions in the margins. Such practices are going to translate into better comprehension every time.
Annotating gives you an opportunity to pause and reflect on what you’re reading.
Too many of us blow through books without stopping to consider the words that we have taken into ourselves. Ezekiel’s metaphor cuts both ways: we can savor the words we ingest or we can swallow them without nary a taste. The process of annotations forces you to taste what you’re taking in through your eyes, to consider its nutritional value. Every time you pause to think, “is this worth underling? Is it worth writing a question here?”, you are savoring the moment and allowing the words to nourish your mind far superior to the very best speed-reading course available.
Annotating greatly increases your ability to recall what you’ve read long after you finished.
A quick look through an old book on my shelf recalls to mind questions still unanswered, plot devices that changed my views of a character, and beautiful passages which have colored my language many years later. This tactile element focuses your attention on something worth remembering. Will you remember every note you make, every line you highlight? No, you won’t. But you will certainly be able to access what you’ve read faster when you reopen the book, as all good readers ought to do from time to time.
These are only some of the benefits that readers gain from annotating the text. And there are different ways to annotate a text as well, though I won’t spend any time getting into the nitty-gritty here. Whatever method you employ, remember that by annotating the text you are leaving behind a roadmap for yourself or others to follow as they read. And that dog-eared, highlighted, written copy of your favorite book might just take on a sense of being loved, of being real, the next time around.