To note or not to note: that is the question

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.

post itI 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 turniphotong 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?


About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 26, 2015, in Bookends, Sunday Salon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 44 Comments.

  1. I leave Post-its or more likely scraps of paper throughout my books to mark pages to return to. I often think about writing in my books, but never actually do it. I think I like the idea more than the reality. I’m not precious about the state of my books (I almost always break the spine) but I have a real aversion to folding down pages. In fact I would rather leave coffee rings on my books than crease the corners! I guess we all have our limit where acceptable wear and tear becomes vandalism, and that’s mine.

  2. I have never turned down corners on a book, and I do my best to not bend the covers but if the spine cracks then I accept it as it’s to do with the binding. I used to write marginalia when I was a student. Then I stopped and when I got back into discussing books, rather than just reading them, I started making notes BUT that became too time consuming. You have to find something to write on, you have to note the page it refers to, so I went back to marginalia. I keep a pencil, you can get flat little ones in the book as a bookmark, and I write pretty lightly in the margins, and often make summary comments at the back. I hate books with tiny margins and no blank pages at the back! It’s the summary notes at the back that I mainly use when writing my blog reviews.

    • Flat pencils – now that would be useful. I shall have to go scouting around for them. I’ve used the inside of the covers on occasions in desperation when there were no blank pages available.

      • Haha …

        I’ve mostly seen flat pencils in places like museum gift shops … And I think in some of those book shops that sell stationary and book-related gift items. They often come in packs. Some though are biros.

        I’ve also got a couple of flat pencils with a clip/slide on the end – hotel freebies in Japan. It’s called a pegcil… Google it. Looks like they are marketed for things like golf scoring. They are little and can slide onto the score card. I slide mine onto the front cover of the book, so again I never have to go looking for a pencil to make notes.

        • well I found these Pegcils and you can get them in Japan easily enough (bit far to go though) and via Amazon in US but frustratingly not in UK

  3. I’m in the it depends camp. It depends on what I am reading, why I am reading it, and what format I am reading it in, whether I own it or borrowed it. I might highlight, underline, scribble in the margin, scribble on a sticky note, type a note, fold a corner or place a temporary page point. I also might save quotes I particularly like to commonplace book. Such saving involves me actually copying the quote with a pen into a nice notebook I keep for the express purpose.

  4. I’ m corner turn-downers, although I don’t like to do it, but it’s hard to change habits.

  5. I turn down corners all the time, it’s my way of tracking where I am in the book, and pages that called out to me. I do hesitate to scribble on the margins. If I really want to sit down and take notes, it’s usually Evernote or a small diary, or even Siri on my iphone where I speak my thoughts aloud and have it transcribe into text.

    • I never knew Siri could do that transcribing – its a tool I’ve not really used very much but will have to have a look now Nish

      • It’s great when I don’t have pen/notepad ready and I really want to record my thoughts. I just open my email and click microphone, and start speaking. Siri transcribes it into text and I can just send it to myself later. Works like a charm 🙂

  6. If you own the book write in it, turn down pages, do whatever, but please do not do this with library books.

  7. I used to write in the margins of my books, but a couple of times I’ve looked back at those notes and wondered what I was thinking writing them. So now I write notes on scraps of paper to stick into the book, and sometimes, I turn down the corners. Although, like you, I then sometimes have trouble trying to remember why I marked a certain page. 🙂

    • Similar problem here when i look back at some of the books i had in school (yes I still have many of them) or university. The comments seem so juvenile to me now.

  8. Well, it depends on my mood. I just started writing notes on the margin this year and I find it very helpful. It makes me think about the prose more. But this reading/note-taking takes time since I have to pause a lot and sometimes, I just want to zip through books. And sometimes, I have nothing much to take note of.

    I used to do the post-its things but it doesn’t work for me because the tabs are smaller than the margin (smaller space for writing). And they sometimes fall off.

  9. I keep a notebook by my side as I’m reading. I’ve tried post-it notes but the notebook works best for me.

  10. Sometimes I just like reading without making notes – it slows me down too much. I don’t write in the books or turn down the corners and used to use post-it notes, or slips of paper if I didn’t jot down notes until I discovered Book Darts. They are wonderful, little metal arrows that don’t mark or stain the pages and can point directly to a line in the book you want to remember.

  11. Post-it notes in a book, but a lot of my reading is on the kindle, and that makes note-taking easy.

    • Kindle does make it super simple and there is no danger of anything getting lost. but i don’t use my kindle that much even though I really wanted one for years

  12. When I’m taking notes, I prefer to write notes in the margin. It’s easier than keeping Post-its handy. But if I don’t have a pen, I’ll happily fold down the page and hope that I remember my reasons later. My feeling is that books are meant to be used, and if that means writing in them or folding the pages, so be it. Some books get more notes than others, though, and some don’t get any at all. For some reason, I’m more apt to take notes if a book is making me cranky.

    I am, however, careful with library books and books people have lent me. I may insert a Post-It or a book dart if I have some around and want to remember something.

  13. I don’t really like turning down corners but I do it sometimes (only with already old and slightly battered books) though often I just stick small bits of paper or post-it-notes in pages I want to refer back to.

    • I’ve been known to use anything that comes to hand – railway tickets, receipts, luggage labels – turning down the corner is a last resort when all other options have been exhausted!

  14. I’d rather take notes then corner or mark a book. That’s a sacrilege in my opinion. Of course, if I were teaching a book or taking it in a course, that would be different.

  15. I’m neither. Most of the books I borrow are from the library and as I don’t do reviews on my blog, and I’m not in college anymore, I don’t take notes. Once in a while, though, I’ll come across a passage that catches my eye and then I’ll write it down or save it to Evernote. That doesn’t happen very often.

  16. Annotated post it notes or flags (plus the page number as I too have often lost the place when stickiness wore out.) when I bother at all. I bother when the book is very important to me or I’m reading for book group. If the book is important in a different way ie for a comment to a blog then I’ll comment direct or scribble reactions onto an envelope or piece ofpaper until I’ve reached some sense of what I want to say. I’ve often fretted afterwards though, second, third even fourth thoughts..

  17. I prefer to use post-it flags, unless I really want to remember the specific words that came to my mind when reading, and then I may use a larger post-it note with those words recorded on it, or I have been known to use the “Note” function on my phone for this purpose.

    I have a friend whose books are all marked up in the margins and it makes for very interesting reading as the second or third or…? person to read it is in his wake!

    I find it do better if I just reread the paragraph or half-page at a later date when I’m composing a review, otherwise, my “notes” become way too detailed for my liking. I find it takes too much time away from my reading and completing the book! 🙂

    I think different things work for different people and some prefer not to make any notes or flag any pages in any way.

  18. I am a note taker. 🙂

    I can’t bring myself to fold the corners down. 🙂

    Thanks for your wonderful post.

    Very nice blog…following.

    Silver’s Reviews
    My Blog

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