C.S.Lewis was apparently seldom happier than when he was making notes as he read, actively engaging with the text by underlining passages, sketching genealogical trees, adding headlines to each page. In a letter he wrote in 1932 he explained his thinking:
Many an otherwise dull book which I had to read have I enjoyed in this way, with a fine-nibbed pen in my hand: one is making something all the time and a book so read acquires the charm of a toy without losing that of a book.
I seldom follow his lead when I’m reading purely for pleasure. If I come across a scene I think is remarkable or a passage with an interesting perspective or idea I’m far more likely to tear off a Post-It note than to get out a pen.
It’s an approach that is flawed in many ways. Those little squares of day-glo coloured paper do have the annoying habit of coming adrift from the page to which they were once attached. Not very helpful therefore as aide mémoires or ways of quickly finding significant pages. The bigger flaw however is that generally (the photo above is a rare exception) I omit to add any note to the sticker which captures my thoughts about the passage I’ve marked so weeks after I finish the book and look back at the Post- It notes, I often can’t remember what had caught my attention.
My other habit, when Post-It notes are not available, has a similar flaw. I know some people hate the idea of turning down a corner just as they hate to see cracks along the spine. But this doesn’t worry me at all. I wouldn’t of course want to read books which have coffee stains or food marks on the pages but books with turned down corners and creased covers signal to me that this was a book that I read and enjoyed, maybe the marks show that I carried it with me on a holiday or to read in the park. In short, it’s a book with which I had a relationship.
I know the theory that reading should be an active exercise; that you should annotate it at the same time as reading. Making notes as you go along makes you think more about the ideas being presented which helps to improve retention of what you’ve read. I do it if I’m reading a novel as part of an educational course. Hence why my copy of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady contains plenty of scribbles (even then I’m clearly not as committed as Lewis since my notes are faint pencil marks not ink). But I’ve never got into the habit of doing this with books I’m reading for pleasure. Somehow it feels as if it would spoil the experience itself to break off, reach for a pen and begin scribbling. Some bloggers do I think and others keep a notebook by their side as they read. Maybe it would help me to remember some books in more detail (but then I have the blogsite for that) but I’m not convinced.
What camp do you all fall into – are you corner turn-downers or note takers?