a dog reading a book
a dog reading a book
#marginalia #activereading

Marginalia, The Art of Active Reading

Paul Kiernan

When you read and interact with a book with questions, observations, or personal experiences, the words mean more, and you’re earning your time with the book.

There is a bookstore on the corner. If you go there, you may run into Martin, a retired fisherman who loves to read. Martin has a unique way of picking out his next read. He will look at titles, find one he likes, remove it carefully from the shelf, tuck it under his arm and walk around the bookstore for an hour or so.

“I like to make friends with the book before I buy it,” he tells me over coffee, “once I feel we’re friends, then I know we’re ready for a relationship.”

Like most avid readers, Martin understands that reading is not a passive activity. It requires give-and-take comments and arguments. How does one argue with a book? Marginalia.

For those who don’t know, marginalia, or apostils, are notes made in the margins of books or documents. They can be scribbles, doodles, notes, arguments, and the like. They are ways the reader has a conversation with the book, the writer or other readers, or even themselves.

They are part of what makes reading active.

The eReader & Marginalia

For some, the electronic reading device, such as the Kindle, was a Godsend. They could now take their entire library with them in a slim, easy-to-carry tablet. This is very exciting as it introduced more people to the wonders of reading.

The trouble here is eReders are hard things on which to comment. I have a Kindle that sits on a shelf gathering dust, but now and then, when I have to travel and don’t want to take up luggage space with books, I pull it down, charge it up, and toss it in my bag.

Although that seems convenient, it comes with its own unique problems. For one, if I want to read, say, a biography of Stalin again, I can pull it from the shelf and read. I don’t have to plug a book in or recharge it. And, if I fall asleep while reading, I don’t have to recharge when I wake up ready to read again.

Also, eReaders are not so marginalia friendly. Sometimes, when reading, I am struck by an idea and want to comment. I grab a pen and write that idea in the margin when reading a book. There it is. With my Kindle, I have to highlight, click the make a note button, write the note on the screen keyboard with one finger, save, go back, etc. Usually, in the middle of all that, I need to remember what I was going to say. My arguments with books are quick and immediate; eReaders are not conducive to that type of conversation.

Reading Means Deeper Understanding

A series of stars illuminated with red

With Tik Tok and YouTube, one billion streaming channels, it’s easy to think that reading is great for students, but it doesn’t hold up in the real world. Well, that’s just not true.

Off the top of my head, here are five benefits of reading,

  • Improves memory and concentration
  • Reduces stress and aids in relaxation
  • Expands your vocabulary and strengthens your writing abilities
  • Enhances your general knowledge
  • Improves creativity and fires up the imagination

Yes, you can get that from watching a documentary, but reading engages in deeper learning. You can watch a documentary and have information wash over you. Reading demands you interact with the material. Reading requires you to interact with the words to get information from the page to the brain.

When you passively read, you’re just borrowing knowledge. When you interact with the books through marginalia, your interaction allows for a deeper learning; you’re making the experience your own and personal. You’re earning the knowledge being presented.

A chef metaphor better explains this. You can follow a recipe in a book and make a dish. But, you may need to find out why the spices used, the cooking temperature or the oil has been chosen. So, you’re just borrowing the recipe. When you study it, understand the flavor combinations, and can make adjustments to the dish through your exploration of it, then you’re owning it, then it is yours, and you’ve earned it.

When you read and interact with a book with questions, observations, or personal experiences, the words mean more, and you’re earning your time with the book.

Active Reading and Creativity

"I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book."
Groucho Marx
An open book floating among stacked books

Active reading, the kind where you write furiously in the margins or leave notes that are personal and specific, activates the creative muscles and gets the creative juices flowing.

When done right, any kind of creative endeavor elicits emotions from the audience, viewer, or reader. But these emotional responses require a commitment by the audience to engage with the material.

A play can be passive, “I’m just going because my partner likes this stuff,” or it can be active, where your excitement to see the show is raised by being fully engaged in the show. In the theater, it’s called the willing suspension of disbelief. This is when the work is so engrossing that there is an unspoken agreement to forget that you’re watching a play and allow yourself to be pulled into and believe the events being portrayed.

Movies achieve this suspension with a phrase: based on actual events. Now the viewer is pulled in because they want to know how something so fantastical could actually happen.

With fiction, there is no phrase; there is an agreement between writer and reader to throw away predetermined ideas and immerse themselves into the story.

Or with non-fiction, the way the writer presents the material and what they chose to highlight about the event or person can be cause for argument and conversation.

The point is that to truly enjoy, connect and learn from a book, film, or play; you have to actively participate in the event. When you read and fully participate, your imagination paints pictures and fills in the details the writer may have hinted at. You can achieve this feeling on an eReader, but the act of arguing or commenting through marginalia connects you stronger and deeper to the experience.

It’s an immediate reaction and one that doesn’t suffer time easily. The passion of the argument or comments and the power of the conversation must be engaged and expressed immediately. Then the material will stay with you, and you will find yourself remembering it more and even quoting pieces you’ve read.

It’s a privilege to read. In 1820 the global literacy rate stood at 12%. Now, we’re at a worldwide rate of 87%. Most developed nations try to achieve a 99% literacy rate. Reading is essential, not just for recreation. Writing apps like Google Docs has a function for marginalia. It’s the add comment icon. Google knows that reading a document actively, and making comments on it, allows the reader and the writer to reach a better, more polished document.

What’s the Point

A post with a rock on it sticking out of the water

By the end of 2019, brick-and-mortar bookstores had taken a hit. Over the two decades ending in 2019, the US Census reported that close to half the brick-and-mortar bookstores in the country had closed. Dropping from 12,151 in 1998 to 6,045.

Video games, Play Station, and the like have massive marketing campaigns with tons of money backing up commercials and promotions. Books, not so much.

The fear that books are a dying industry is just not true. The bookstore, however, is being swallowed up by online shopping.

The point of this is to do a little book promotion. Think about the entire process of buying a book as an active event. Instead of looking online, go to a bookstore, get a cup of coffee, look at staff recommendations, and feel the sweet, comforting bookstore vibe.

Take a cue from Martin, find a book, make friends with it, and then start a relationship. When you sit down to read, make sure you have a pencil with you and approach the book like you would approach a wise friend you’re sitting across the table from. Be present. Be active. Engage the book with marginalia and see how that changes the way you read.

If you go to a bookstore, perhaps you’ll come across a collection of poems by Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, Billy Collins, titled Picnic, Lightning. If you do, look for the poem Marginalia. It’s a lovely poem, a beautiful story, and it gives you a great look into the lasting power of marginalia.

" ... a few greasy looking smears and next to them, written in soft pencil– by a beautiful girl, I could tell, whom I would never meet– “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
Billy Collins

It’s not defacement; it’s not graffiti; books want you to write in their margins, talk to and with them, and be in a relationship with them. Books are not happy to simply sit on shelves; they like to be visited again and again. Marginalia keeps the living spirit of a book going.

In the new year, tuck a book under your arm, make friends with it and let the magic begin.