Dots in the Margin

I’ve never read or heard about someone who reads quite the way I do. Mostly I see readers, without pen or pencil, simply flipping from one page to next, whether it is in a printed or electronic book. However, Nicholson Baker appears to come close to my practice. He describes his routine in an essay, “Narrow Road” in the Autumn 2000 issue of the American Scholar.

“When I come across something I really like in a book, I put a little dot in the margin. Not a check, not a double line—these would be pedantic—but a single, nearly invisible tap or nudge of the pen-tip that could almost be a dark flick in the paper.”

He says he doesn’t like to make too many dots—no more than ten or fifteen in any book. I have no idea why.

He also prefers dots to any other marking procedure because it is less obtrusive, less distracting to others if they read his copy of the book or to him if he rereads it again.

But there is more: “I also write the numbers of the marked pages in the back. Then—and this is the most important part—at some later date, sometimes years later, I refer to the page numbers, locate the dots, and copy in a spiral-bound notebook the passages that have awaited my return.”

I follow the same procedure but instead of copying by hand (totally unreadable and almost impossible to search), I copy the saved passages into a Word document making them far more legible and retrievable.

And unlike Baker, I do this when I finish the book or periodical. Baker started to fall behind about fifteen years ago and he still hasn’t caught up. “I have dozens, probably hundreds of books with a column of page numbers written on the endpapers whose appealing sentences or paragraphs I have not yet transcribed.”

The only other instance of someone I know about who follows my method, at least partially, is David Cecil, an English 20th Century writer and literary scholar. In Library Looking Glass, he describes his procedure this way.

“…when anything in the text has especially struck me, I have noted on the end-paper the number of the page where this has occurred. Sometimes my note simply indicated admiration…The passage referred to was beautiful or comical or well-written in ways that had a peculiar appeal to my own taste, or it stated a view which I found especially illuminating; or it stimulated in me a fruitful train of thought.”

Cecil is silent on his copying procedure, but he wrote and read well before the digital age. My hunch is that he kept a notebook of his collected passages but I can’t be sure of that. Instead, he may have simply checked the page numbers listed at the back of the book when he wanted to review his saved passages.

In his introduction to the Oxford World’s Classic edition of The Major Works of Francis Bacon, Brian Vickers writes about the notebook culture of Bacon’s time.

“All educationalists taught that reading was to be carried out pen in hand, ready to note in the margin metaphors, similes, exempla, sententiae, apophthegms, proverbs, or any other transportable units of literary composition. These were then to be copied out into one or more notebooks, divided either alphabetically or by topics, and to be reused in one’s own writing.”

During the Renaissance, the highpoint of the commonplace book tradition, writing by hand in a notebook was about the only way you could preserve one’s reading preferences. And I suspect that is also true almost everyone who keep a commonplace book today.

I know people differ on the relative merits of typing or writing by hand. However, in my case, there really isn’t any other way, if I want to look back to read and retrieve what I’ve found most memorable in a book I’ve read. Or, indeed, if I want to find out if I have already read the book.