On Marginalia: Note Taking for College Students

        and Others Who Want to Make the Most of Their Reading Time

Why should I write in my book?!!
{1}Making marginalia (notes or symbols written in the margins of a document) is the best way to get the most out of the time you spend reading a difficult text. Tim Parks, a noted novelist and literature professor, goes so far as to argue that getting people to make marginalia when they read is the one thing that "might best improve the lot of mankind."

{2}Even if your ambitions are less grand than that, marginalia can be a big help. Most adults have difficult texts they want to master – from business contracts and feasibility studies to religious texts and book club novels; and students at liberal arts colleges need to master difficult texts almost every day. Most college students have many demands on their time, and they want the time they spend on reading assignments to benefit them both in the short term (with their grades) and in the long term (with becoming better, more capable thinkers). Marginalia can help anyone with a difficult text to master.

Marginalia in Charles Dickens's Bleak House, added by a literary critic
who uses marginalia for all kinds of reading.

Marginalia as a strategy for better reading
{3} Mortimer Adler – the author of a best-selling book called How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Educationgives three reasons for writing in the margins of your books.

{4}First, he says, marginalia “keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake.” When you are making marginalia, you know that you really are paying attention. If you’ve ever read something, highlighting every page, and then gotten to the end and realized that you had no idea what you’d just read, you know how easy it is to fool yourself into thinking you’re reading when you’re really just skimming. When you read without fully absorbing the content, you’re wasting time you could have spent doing other things. To benefit from your reading in the short term (preparing for an exam or class discussion, for instance) or in the long term (gaining wisdom that you’ll value after you graduate), you need to be able to speak intelligently about it. Staying alert means you won’t have to read it a second or third time before you can do that.

{5}Aside from simply keeping you awake, marginalia is part of “active reading” – the kind of reading that forms the core of a liberal arts education. For Adler, “reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.” When you’re reading for a college class, you’re not trying to be a scanner or a vacuum cleaner. Instead, you’re trying to understand the text, the way a clockmaker understands which gears make a clock chime or the way a fan understands how a fumble happened after watching it on instant replay. You want to read so that you can see what the author is arguing, or how the ideas connect to other things you know, or how the separate parts of the text fit together, or what makes it beautiful. In other words, marginalia helps you think more clearly.

{6}Equally important, marginalia and other active reading techniques help you develop your own distinctive insights – responses to the text that come from your own life history and intellectual strengths. You aren’t the only one who can read a particular text, but you are the only one who can see it from your unique perspective. The sharper you can be about what you see from your own perspective, the more valuable you are to the audiences who care about what you have to say. That is why active reading (and a liberal arts education more generally) is so important – the world needs people who can share the wisdom that comes from making the most of what their life experiences allow them to see and understand.

{7}The third reason Adler promotes marginalia is a practical one that college students, especially, appreciate: it makes reviewing the reading much more effective. So what should you include? When we read historical scholarship in my classes, students need to make note of the author’s argument. Briefly outlining the author’s main points (with numbered keywords, say) is also a big help. Marginalia like that works as a study guide, a way to review and check your memory of the text; it also helps with finding the details you might need for a paper or class discussion. But there is an infinite variety of texts and of readers – you should make notes that are important to you. Marginalia showing where you agree or disagree with the author, and marginalia recording questions the text makes you wonder about, are both helpful. Many people turn marginalia into something like a conversation with the author. Students, especially, benefit from recording connections between the author’s ideas and ones they’ve learned from lecture or other readings. Brief definitions of unfamiliar terms are handy, and it’s fun to mark passages that make you laugh.

Mark Twain's marginalia, used to remind himself of where the author made a similar point earlier in the text.

Reading print versus digital texts
{8}The thing about marginalia is that you need to own a physical copy of the text to do it. It would be rude to scribble all over a friend’s book, of course, and it’s equally rude to mark books you’ve borrowed from the library. But you can photocopy sections of a book you borrow from the library and mark on the copies. Sometimes students are afraid to write in books that they want to sell at the end of term, but the Hanover College bookstore buys back books at the same rate whether they’re written in or not, and they don’t have a penalty for writing in rented books either. Many other college bookstores follow the same policy.

{9}Unfortunately, marginalia doesn’t work well with ebooks. As it turns out, this might be a blessing in disguise (especially for college students) because we remember and process what we read in paper form more effectively than what we read on screens.

{10}In a recent Scientific American article, Ferris Jabr reported on research showing the advantages we get from reading text in print rather than on a screen. One advantage is that our brains unconsciously keep track of the “topography” of a text when we read it in book form. When our prehistoric ancestors traveled through a new area, their brains helped them keep track of the space they were moving through so that they could return to a promising berry patch or avoid a threatening snake pit. Our brains function the same way when we read. If we want to find that passage about Hazel and Augustus “drinking stars” in champagne, we can flip back through the book, looking for the top part of that right-hand page near the middle of the book where we read about their restaurant dinner together. More than a handy reference trick, this unconscious ability helps us see each passage in the context of a larger work. When we add marginalia, we improve our “mental map” of the book – both the memory of where passages fall in the text and the more abstract sense of how the ideas fit together. In contrast, when we read digital texts, the words scroll by without any landmarks, so we have to work harder to understand the shape of the whole text.

{11}Jabr also reports that people tend to read printed texts with more care than they do digital texts. Despite our best intentions, we tend to be superficial and distracted when we read digital texts – skimming over the prose and switching from one site to another. Those strategies are fine for social media posts, but they’re less helpful for long-form texts (like books or legal documents) that call for active reading. In contrast, we tend to stay more focused when we’re reading printed texts. And when we add marginalia to those texts, our reading becomes even more effective.

{12}The study my students find most compelling compared college students reading the same document in print and digital form. When the students had a reasonable amount of time to prepare for an exam, the students who read the document in print form scored 10% higher than the ones who read the same document in digital form. An entire grade’s improvement just from choosing the paper version over the digital one sounds like a great deal!

Marginalia in Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet,
added by a mother planning meals for her family in the 1970s.

Handwritten notes
{13}While Jabr focuses on the reading process, a more general study of students from around the world found that "students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes."  Some studies suggest that physically forming letters and words with a pencil (rather than typing them) is what  helps us get more out of what we're taking notes about. Researchers focusing specifically on note taking during college lectures find that students who take notes by hand master the information better, apparently because the act of writing forces them to summarize and highlight key points. In contrast, students using laptops are likely to type up the whole lecture without really thinking about it. As a result, students with handwritten notes score better on exams. They understand the ideas from the lecture better and are able to connect those ideas more effectively to other things they know.

{14}Marginalia works much the same way. Once we decide to write notes in the margins of what we’re reading, we are committing ourselves to summarizing its ideas and reacting to them. That process contributes to better understanding of the text – and better preparation for using its ideas later.

{15}The combination of reading a text in print form and writing notes in the margins helps most people more than they think it will. When Tim Parks began asking his students to do it, he found it "remarkable how many [of them] improved their performance with this simple stratagem." I, too, find that students who use marginalia are significantly more successful in my classes than those who don't.

{16}Why, in sum, should college students write in their books? Because making handwritten notes on printed texts gives you a measurable edge over people reading digital texts. Marginalia helps you be more intentional and active in your reading, and it makes it easier for you to remember and understand those texts better when it comes time to study for exams.

--Sarah McNair Vosmeier (2016)      

Further Reading on Marginalia

Mortimer J. Adler, "How to Mark a Book" (6 July 1941) Saturday Review of Literature.
This essay is a quick overview of the ideas he discusses at more length in his best-selling book. Among the oft-quoted lines from this essay is “I contend, quite bluntly, that marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love.”

Eleanor Haeg, "Reading Actively" (13 March 2014) shenandoahliterary.org.
In this blog post, Haeg challenges readers to follow Adler’s advice. For her and for those who comment on her blog, “it made reading an entirely different activity.”

Billy Collins, "Marginalia" (2002) in Maria Popova’s “Pardon the Egg Salad Stains, But I’m in Love,” BrainPickings.org.
Here you can read Collins’s poem or listen to him reading it. Celebrating marginalia of all sorts, he suggests “if you have managed to graduate from college without ever having written ‘Man vs. Nature’ in a margin, perhaps now is the time to take one step forward.”

Sam Anderson, " A Year in Marginalia" (6 Dec. 2010) themillions.com.
A literary critic reproduces some of the marginalia he made over the course of a year – one or two examples for every month.

Colin Dickey, "Living in the Margins" (22 March 2012) Lapham’s Quarterly.
Dickey gives a mini-history of medieval marginalia, which could be vulgar, bizarre, and/or humorous. Here’s a sample of the “bitchy complaints” monks wrote in the margins of the books they were copying: “Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.”

Carl Pyrdum, "Medieval Doodles: A Quick Primer" (13 Feb. 2012) gotmedieval.com.
Pyrdum’s blogs on medieval marginalia include amusing footnotes in the style of Terry Pratchett; this one explains how various types of marginalia were created.

Tim Parks, "A Weapon for Readers" (3 Dec. 2014) New York Review of Books blog.
Parks argues that reading with pen in hand encourages readers to be more critical: like a "hawk over a field" readers with pens are "on the lookout for something vulnerable" so that they can "swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point."

Ferris Jabr, "The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens" (11 April 2013) Scientific American.
Jabr summarizes multiple studies on reading text in print or digital form.

Cindi May, "A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop" (3 June 2014) Scientific American.
May summarizes multiple studies on the use of laptops in the college and graduate school classroom, showing that handwritten lecture notes are more effective and that – despite their best intentions – almost all students using laptops are distracted for at least part of every class.

Book Traces is a crowd-sourced project to identify and preserve marginalia in out-of-copyright library books. You can see the interesting examples other library users have turned up, and you can submit your own finds.

A longer list of recommended reading is available here.

Last Updated: Sept. 4, 2016