To annotate or not to annotate?

That’s the question and of course I would like to hear your answer.

So you’re reading a book (for the sake of this conversation it’s a book you own) and you come across a quote or passage you love.

Do you:

  • a) underline or highlight it and write notes in your book
  • b) write it down in a notebook (maybe a book journal) or piece of paper
  • c) use a post it note or page flag
  • d) take a picture on your phone
  • e) use an electronic app (goodreads or something else)
  • f) none of these (because you remember everything you read or you don’t take notes while reading)
  • g) a combination of your own making from items A-E

This topic of annotating books (or not) has surfaced time and time again. I’ve discussed it recently and even had someone recommend some YouTube videos on this topic. Before I decided to write this blog post, I asked a few of the ladies I’m reading Middlemarch with about this topic because I’m at a point where I’m giving SERIOUS thought to writing (in pencil) in my copy of the book (a quick update, Middlemarch convinced to annotate so please keep reading). So I asked and was met with a resounding NO! (One said she’s a DIVA about her books, yes I can relate). However, I was surprised because she majored in English and I thought for sure she’d say yes. The lovely lady behind Spunky Reads said she takes notes but has no organized method.

Hence the reason for this post. As a person who loves reading (and typically participates in group book discussions see link here) I need to be able to keep track of notable passages, quotes, characters and events along with my random thoughts because I usually read several books at the same time. In 2016 I started a book journal and it’s improved my ability to keep my book thoughts organized and has been a fun way to look back over my reading year. It took some time to work out a system that worked for me but its like a well oiled machine now, it works and is effective. I came up with a hashtag over on Bookstagram #ShowMeYourBookNotes endeavoring to see how others would record their notes on what they’re reading. (Here’s a link to my first book journal)

But annotating directly in the book? After about a year of book journaling and reading more classics, I decided to try annotating at least ONE my book this reading year; Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Annotating Mary Barton

As you can see I still have my essentials, post it flags, several pieces of paper with some notes along the way while reading, my book journal, pen, and pencil. I was very nervous about WRITING in my book so I used a pencil (in case I decided I would become physically ill doing this and change my mind). But I made it through the whole book and feel a different connection with this book (this is a great book by the way, read it). I have my book journal notes too but needless to say I tried it.

Was I convinced after that experience to continue annotating my books? No I wasn’t. Perhaps because my brain is hard wired to what I’ve been doing for over a year with my book journal and because I can’t possibly fit all my thoughts about a great book inside the (HELLO THOSE MARGINS ARE SMALL). But I can’t say with full conviction that annotating is not beneficial.

When I read Mary Barton and decided to annotate it was scary because I never write in books. But after a while it was easier and neat (I like straight lines it was visibly satisfying when annotating). Looking back 2 months after reading the book and my first annotating experience here are a few benefits:

  1. Quickly find and identify passages of importance
  2. Less paper stuck inside book (notes that I didn’t record in my journal)
  3. A hardwired connection from making more notes directly on the page (especially helpful during discussions)

So I’ve been using my typical method and I’m back to the conversation about annotating; reading and discussing Middlemarch prompted this post. Its almost like Middlemarch is telling me, “You NEED to write here, here and right there at the end of this chapter.” I’ve made my way through a good bit of Middlemarch (a brief post on it soon) and YES, I’ve been annotating my book without reservation! See pictures below.

My typical book note method with Middlemarch, book journal and pages of notes tucked inside during reading (above)

Middlemarch, annotations full steam ahead (above)

So maybe the question could also be, if you do decide to annotate your books, what type of books would that be?

Criteria for annotating (in my limited experience)

  1. Classics – I think classics have more to reflect on promoting me to underline or flag key passages (ones I find memorable)
  2. Let the book dictate if it’s annotation worthy – I’ve read a few other classics since Mary Barton but haven’t had the same urge to annotate until Middlemarch (and it’s amazing so far)

I wouldn’t write in my hardcover collectibles (Penguin Clothbounds, Knickerbocker Classics or Canterbury Classics Editons). But a classic in paperback, if I’m going to annotate, that would be my preference. Even my lovely Oxford World’s Classics (but not 100% sure yet).

So I ask, to annotate or not to annotate? How do you keep track of your book notes? Does it include any of the options listed above? I’d love to discuss this more. Leave your thoughts and comments below.

Published by booksbythecup

Lover of good books and tea

24 thoughts on “To annotate or not to annotate?

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! This has been on my mind for a while. I never thought I would see the day when I would have such strong feelings about writing in my book. 😊


  1. I always marked in my books for class because I knew that the marks would come in handy when I had to write an essay. I’m more lazy about that now, but it’s partially because I’ve bought several hardbacks lately, and marking in the collector editions feels wrong. I feel like I connect more with the works when I am marking passages.

    I recently bought Middlemarch, also! Is it as amazing as I’m expecting?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have always used page flags or made notes outside of the book so this has been such an experience, especially with Middlemarch. (I hope you have an edition you can write in 😉 it’s such an amazing book so far) I understand about the nice collectible editions like the Clothbounds or my Knickerbockers, I don’t think I would bring myself to write in them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was raised in a way that I shall not, for ANY means, harm a book. and that covers writing inside also .. it’s something from way back but I just can’t shake it off for some reason.

    I do a mix of d) & e). If it reminds me of someone, i’ll take a picture and send it to them.. Otherwise, I’d write it on a blogpost of Tumblr or inside a Goodreads update, I might even write it on my planner or Bujo.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can understand what you mean, I never write in books, only a notebook, even in school when we would read we weren’t encouraged to write in the books (especially since they didn’t belong to us they were borrowed). So many people I’ve discussed this with said they started it because of university literature studies but it never clicked with me until I tried it (hesitancy) and fell head over hills in Middlemarch. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I never worried about taking notes on what I was reading for pleasure until bookstagram and now I’m going thru the post-its. And just this year I decided to make a journal of favorite quotes. I don’t see me ever writing in my books though. However, for years I’d annotate in my study publications, for discussion purposes. I guess it for me it was the difference between material that was important to recall vs pleasure reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree I never considered it before, I would just use my post it flags and my book journal with a piece of paper I would keep inside of the book for things I wanted to keep in mind for discussion. Maybe because I’ve been thinking about annotation and decided to try it with Mary Barton (although I wasn’t convinced) I could ever do it but Middlemarch has been different. I don’t think every book would be one I would annotate


  4. I should just add that seeing all those notes on Middlemarch makes me think I need to tackle that book to see what the fervor is all about! Perhaps next March!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am on the same page as you! I will either annotate if it’s a heavy book like classics or history (nonfiction) that I need to go back to or reflect on! But again I don’t think I’ll be annotating all classics/pretty editions! I’ll buy a paperback just for fully experiencing the book if needed! When you have to annotate as much as you do in Middlemarch it definitely saves time to do it directly in the book

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! This has come up a few times and I know at least one person who’s been telling me to do it for a while but I would always feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of writing in my book. But maybe trying it before coupled with this buddy read might have been the impetus to get me over the initial fear? You’re right about it saving time and I feel like makes the weekly discussions easier. I wonder now after posting if I should have asked about people taking notes in their ebooks, I’ve done that prior to annotating a physical book, do you think there’s a difference?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it’s a matter of preference again with ebooks! I feel like my thoughts are more organized when I am writing vs when I am typing! But that’s an interesting way to look at it

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I mostly read classics on my kindle and I underline and take a lot of notes. It took a little time to get use to it but I’m using it more and more. The only paper books I annotate are non fiction, well history books, but I studied history so it’s natural to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read on my kindle too! I realized after I posted this I should have asked about kindles or ereaders. When I read The Woman in White I did so on my kindle because I didn’t have a copy so I still had my notes there (and Gone With the Wind too). I’m glad to hear from others what merits annotating vs what doesn’t


  7. I was so trained in high school to not write in books, because we don’t own them, that when I got to college, I still wasn’t writing in them, even though I bought all the texts. Finally, when I realized annotations are a VERY IMPORTANT PART OF LEARNING, I started writing in everything. That was around 13 years ago. What’s fun is going back and reading my annotations from that long ago. I was a different person, but I’m also sure some of those notes were things my professors had said.

    As an adult, I have a weird memory that clings to details. As a result, I pretty much only highlight in my books because I remember why I did it. For library books, I use my phone so I can write the review with quotes and give the book back in time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember the same training in high school. Since I attended a technical college there was really no literary courses in the classics or certain genres, writing in books I’m reading for pleasure never came up.

      Having been trained this way it seemed STRANGE to write in the first book (Mary Barton) but I did and it’s satisfying to look back now at some of my thoughts. With Middlemarch however, there are notes, flags, post its throughout and let me tell you it was AMAZING. There was so many times when I said, it’s impossible for me to write down every quote (and since I was buddy reading this with a group) it seemed easier to just write directly in the book.

      I’m still using a hybrid method (journal + flags + paper) but I’m eager to get to my next demanding annotation type read. I really need to give some thought to whats an effective way (color coding maybe) to annotate so that it’s meaningful and easy to see why I marked something.


      1. You didn’t see my archive post on “How do you read your books” 😂

        Let’s just say yes, yes, I’m a tech geek in some respects which includes eReaders (I have a Kindle Oasis since that post) 😂


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