How do you read?
annotating, marginalia, and little colored tabs
warning: flashing gif in “This Week in Hockey” section
If you aren’t on TikTok, especially the delightful quadrant known as BookTok, you probably haven’t seen the videos where people show off their books, intricately annotated and bristling with sticky tabs. Watching these videos always fills me with a kind of awe. I consider reading a book at all to be an accomplishment, so to be able to read it like I’m still in college and will have to remember stuff for a test later is pretty impressive. The other day I was scrolling through a feed of such videos, thinking smugly that I was above all that.
And then I remembered that my screenshots folder looks like this:
And also this:
I also have a file on my computer of typed-up quotes from books that I have liked. It’s how I wrote the newsletter about Ann Patchett and Patricia Lockwood from a few weeks back—by delving into that trove of quotes.
It got me thinking about this impulse for marginalia, the very human urge to hear or read a phrase that tickles one’s fancy and keep it forever somehow. I categorize this impulse with the impulse to make lists. Umberto Eco, whose book The Name of the Rose I am currently rereading, said that we make lists “because we don’t want to die:”
“What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order -- not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte.”
The universe of carefully-applied color-coded tabs that readers on BookTok prefer is a way of rendering the incomprehensible comprehensible. What makes a book work? What makes a character compelling? What makes a story interesting? It’s also a way of marking an achievement. Looking at these annotated and be-tabbed volumes is the visual equivalent of the feeling you get when you cross something off a to-do list. Look, look at all I’ve read.
Yes, there is something extremely performative in this as well, not to mention an uncomfortable proximity to the culture of overconsumption that social media promotes so shamelessly. After all, buying thousands of little tabes can’t be cheap. At its heart, though, it’s a very human impulse. I saw this phrase: I liked it. I put a tab there to mark my place. Earlier today I saw on instagram that Maureen Johnson, author of the Stevie Bell books (among many others) is starting a series where she highlights fun annotation methods she saw on her most recent book tour. The first one encapsulates my feelings perfectly:
The caption reads, in part: “This first system pleases me in its clarity. Two choices: Lovely and Wait a Minute. Such elegant word choice. Lovely: rich and full and smelling of summer bloom. LOVELY. And Wait a Minute. It’s not negative: it is a hook in time! An alert! Be ON GUARD.”
There is no one way to read a book, or to remember the things you liked about it. Go forth and put tabs on anything you like.
There will be no AFN next week - I’m going to Tennessee, where I will be spending 10+ hours a day reading on either a porch or a soft surface. I look forward to doing a reading roundup when I return to you on the 19th!
My first novel, Marrying In is available for purchase on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo, and is coming soon to iBooks. If you’ve read it, consider leaving a review—that helps me and the book in the long run!
I’m available to hire for freelance editing services on Reedsy. You can find me on social media on Twitter, Instagram, and now TikTok. If you buy any of the books linked in this newsletter I receive a small commission at no cost to you.
WHAT I’M READING
As I mentioned above, I’m rereading The Name of the Rose, which I imprinted on like a little baby duck when I read it in high school. It’s still a compelling read—you gotta love reading Latin you don’t understand, though. I’m also halfway through We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, which I’m reading for a book club. It’s supremely fun—a collective “we” novel about a high school field hockey team from Massachussetts in 1989, who turn to devil worship to help their losing record. Think Then We Came To The End meets “I saw Goody Proctor dancing with the devil,” only with more hair spray.
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
Bringing this section back because it’s playoffs, baby! That is to say: it’s been playoffs for several weeks now, only we’re into the second round and so I’m actually allowed to start caring about the outcome. The Seattle Kraken have made the second round in only their second year of existence, which makes their TikTok page’s embrace of being a hockey romance thirst account even more delightful. The Leafs have made it past the first round for the first time in eons, and the Rangers got eliminated in game 7—that’s what you get for signing Patrick Kane!
This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.