Cris Tovani on the value of marginalia

March 14th, 2011

A couple of recent articles in The New York Times examined the history, value, and future of marginalia — notes scribbled on book pages by readers both famous and ordinary. Annotating text is “a rich literary pastime, sometimes regarded as a tool of literary archaeology, but it has an uncertain fate in a digitalized world,” writes Dirk Johnson in the Feb. 20. article. In another article author Sam Anderson admits that writing in books is “the closest I come to regular meditation; marginalia is — no exaggeration — possibly the most pleasurable thing I do on a daily basis,” and wonders how e-readers will ever immitate the experience. Even NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu talked about annotations and highlighting on the Kindle in a recent piece and it is safe to say, he will be marking up paper copies and not e-books.

But why are annotations so important to a reader? We posed the question to Cris Tovani, author of the upcoming Stenhouse book So What Do They Really know? Assessment that Informs Teaching and Learning. In her book Cris talks a lot about how she encourages students to annotate text and how she uses those annotations to assess students’ needs and plan for instruction. (Sign up on the Stenhouse website to be notified when Cris’ book becomes available.)

Cris not only answered our question, but she also sent us her annotated version of the NYT article.

Once a book is published, its words never change. Yet readers can pick up the same book over and over again and discover new things. The book never changes but readers usually do—their thinking grows and evolves because each day they experience life and gain new perspectives. In a February 2008 article in Harper’s Magazine, fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin refers to the act of reading as “actual collaboration with the writer’s mind.” For me, this sort of collaboration gets to the heart of reading. 

Seeing other readers’ thoughts through annotations is like spying on their thinking. When people annotate text, they give others a glimpse into how they are collaborating with the text’s author. Annotations not only give me insight into the way I am thinking at a particular point in time, but they also give me insight into how my students are collaborating with an author as they construct meaning for themselves. When I annotate, I leave tracks of my thinking on the page. Later, I can read those annotations and be reminded of what was happening in my head at that specific moment.

Mortimer Adler, in his essay “How to Mark a Book,” writes that “the soul of a book can be separate from its body.” It is the “soul” of reading that annotations can reveal. Sometimes, when I go back and read what I’ve written, I laugh at how simple my thinking was. I am encouraged that I’ve gotten smarter. Other times, I’m surprised by something I wrote and am glad that I made that piece of thinking permanent. Often, my annotations connect to a significant event or moment that changed me. They are the midpoint that intersects my intellect and my emotions.

This sounds corny, but the thought of “seeing” how Mark Twain thought at a particular moment in time gives me the shivers. I dread the thought that the art of annotating may disappear. Just consider all of the amazing insights that future generations might miss if readers stopped holding their thinking in the margins of text. Without a way to annotate, we could tragically lose those precious, fleeting moments of thought that become cultural and historical artifacts.

Entry Filed under: Author News

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mrs. V  |  March 14th, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    I’m excited to see that Cris Tovani has another book coming out.

    I love to write in the margins of my PD books, but I never write in my novels. That is one thing that I love about my Kindle though. I agree with Andrei Codrescu as far as seeing other people’s highlights, but I love putting my own highlights and notes. I always just save my own highlights, but I never click save and share since I myself don’t appreciate that feature.

  • 2. Debbie  |  March 21st, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    The beauty of annotating text is that the pen on the page captures the inner voice while transacting with text. By leaving annotations I am able to reconnect much clearer and reflect more accurately, knowing that tracks have been left for me to return to.

  • 3. Rizal Jailani  |  March 23rd, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Greetings! I am a teacher teaching in a primary school (6-12yr old kids) in Singapore. I am heartened to read this article about the benefits of annotating texts as we read. During teacher training, I was exposed to a strategy called ‘Thinking Aloud’ that has the sole purpose of getting pupils to comprehend what they are reading. ‘Thinking Aloud’ requires pupils to dissect/decode a passage that they are reading in order to make their own meaning of it. They underline difficult words/phrases and try to find meaning through contextual clues. They draw links to points within different paragraphs of a passage that are similar or show development of plot. Finally, they summarize in either a sentence or a short phrase the content of each paragraph. Seems daunting an endeavor for them (more so for me initially!) but after having worked with a same group of pupils for 3 straight years, it has yielded great benefits. Pupils not only get to enjoy at a deeper level what they are reading, they also get to experience how good writers develop story plots. Since those days, I have made minor modifications to the approach but kept the essence of it still intact. Though initially my aim was to get pupils to get maximum points on a reading comprehension component in their exams, I now advocate them to ‘think aloud’ anytime they read.

  • 4. Kel Vorhis  |  July 15th, 2011 at 10:20 am

    I teach students in my high school Advanced Composition classes how to annotate texts. I model how to ‘mark up the text’ as I like to call it, and encourage them to find what works for them individually. I stress how important annotating will be for them when they take ACP classes in high school and on into college. I have always annotated any type of text that belongs to me, and when in college enjoyed purchasing used textbooks to see what others had written in them. Such a valuable skill for everyone to learn.

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