Why and How I Annotate My Books

I started annotating books in 2018, when my then-manager started a team “book club” to discuss Conscious Business. I did not love the book, but ever the teacher’s pet overachiever, I told myself I was going to read my manager’s bible the book thoroughly, so I brought out the highlighters and the post its.

Annotating has helped me slow down and deliberately read passages in the book. Sometimes when I read too quickly, I forget details, even if I previously thought they were enlightened when I read them. Marking up such passages helps me remember them and find them easily.

I have a five-level system for my annotations. (Don’t be overwhelmed by the number.) Each level has a purpose, and, depending on the book, I don’t even use all five. Check out my IGTV post, Book Talk – How I Annotate, for a video run-through of my system.

My Annotation System
  • L1: Highlights – For any passage that interests me.
  • L2: Flags – For a passage I feel I’ll want to come back to. Not all highlights need to be flagged, especially since some ideas tend to be repeated on the same chapter. I highlight multiple passages, even if they pertain to the same idea, but I only flag the passage with the strongest or most complete points.
  • L3: Post Its – For discussions over multiple paragraphs or pages, I summarize the idea on a post it, which I stick to the most relevant page. These are usually bigger concepts or processes that a single flag cannot highlight effectively.
  • L4: Note Cards – For my opinions or insights. Sometimes I don’t completely agree with an idea, or I have a real-life application for an idea… I jot those down on note cards to separate them from the author’s ideas.
  • L5: Summary on Notebook – For easy referencing, I summarize the book’s main points on a separate notebook. The summary can go from a single page to three depending on how many new ideas I gained from the book. As I write the summary, I revisit my L1, L2, and L3 notes. Since this is a summary of concepts from the book, I do not incorporate my L4 notes here.

I keep my L5 notes on a separate notebook with all my other L5 notes/book summaries. I look at this notebook when I want to review concepts on a high level and across different books. Often I use this to figure out where I had previously read about some idea. When I want to revisit ideas specific to a book, I take the book from my shelf and skim through my L1, L2, L3, and L4 notes.

As an avid reader, I believe that annotation is a very personal endeavor. Everyone has his or her own style. Reading a book that has been annotated by someone else is incredibly distracting (trust me—I used hand-me-down textbooks in school and had a difficult time coming up with my own insights), so if you do annotate a book, it is yours forever. Please don’t unload a marked up book on some unsuspecting reader and involve yourself in his or her reading experience.

To date, I’ve annotated only nine books (plus two other books I’ve stuck flags on). All of them nonfiction and none memoirs. To be specific, I only annotate nonfiction books that I read with the full intention of learning and retaining information. Memoirs and casual reads do not get annotated, as I prefer to keep my books pristine. (None of the books on my fiction shelf have been marked nor flagged! I love to lend my books out, and I even sell some books to declutter. Most of all, I want to keep my collection in a library and have these books read by generations to come.)

List of Books I’ve Annotated

I came up with my annotation system organically, and I solidified it only on my fifth attempt. I started off with highlighting and flagging—even writing summaries here and there—but I didn’t realize until the fifth book that I had my own opinions. Should you start annotating your books, don’t overthink it. Do what works for you and iterate from there.

Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages is as nerdy and niche as it sounds. Some people take pleasure in reading the dictionary, and some people (who claim they would never read the dictionary) are curious how that would be like.

I love language—I love how it evolves over time, and I love how a word once balked at eventually becomes generally accepted vocabulary. Although I still have qualms about “irregardless” (maybe we can still put a stop to this?), I must admit that it does have a ring to it. …And now that I’ve demonstrated why I am the type of person to read a book such as Reading the OED, I’ll stop gushing and talk about the book now.

The book chronicled Ammon Shea’s journey as he read through the multiple volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary (in case you were wondering what OED meant). With each chapter, Shea included his thoughts about this massive undertaking and words that stood out to him. His musings weren’t lengthy and gave context to the list of words that followed.

Shea also talked about his obsession with dictionaries and how each edition reflected the personality of the editor or author. As I read through this, I thought to myself: maybe I should find myself a nice vintage dictionary to add character to my shelf… Or maybe I should open up a dictionary and read it for fun… But where do I even begin? Should I copy Shea and go for the OED (abridged—there’s no way I’m reading the complete edition)? Or should I opt for Merriam-Webster or Random House? Maybe I should check what dictionaries I already have at home? There are so many considerations. (Don’t be too surprised if I one day declare that I have read a dictionary because I’m a little curious now.)

I loved reading the through the words Shea selected and featured. Who knew there were so many words relating to urine (why the fixation on this?) and to alcohol (seriously, should we be concerned?). My favorite page lists Thomas Nashe’s eight types of drunkards (the Merriam-Webster list uses slightly different terms from the one Shea references, but I’m not going to spend too much time looking for the exact version Shea used).

Reading the OED sounds like a ridiculous thing to do, and Shea does not disappoint in humorously documenting his journey. It’s hard to imagine how reading the dictionary can be fun, but here’s Ammon Shea to enlighten us all. For lovers of the English language and things eccentric, I recommend reading this book. It’s short and light and includes words like goat-drunk, jocoserious, and unbepissed. Check it out, or read the dictionary yourself. (Let me know how that goes.)

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

The House in the Cerulean Sea was such a heartwarming read. I think it was the combination of the writing voice and the characters that gave the book its charm (as the plot was a little predictable).

While reading, I could imagine myself in the main character’s (Linus Baker’s) shoes. I could imagine cold dreary morning and commutes in the rain… I could imagine falling in love with life outside the city—on an island with an ocean view and where the sun is always out. I felt like I was reading a fairy tale …that involved a whole lot of bureaucracy in its universe, and uptight rule following kind of life made me want to seek out color as well.

At first, I wasn’t sure I would like the book at all. I’ve read a few mid-life crisis kind of story, and none of them resonated with me. But this is the only one in which I actually liked the main character. Although an uptight rule follower, Linus Baker had a heart and simply needed a hug. Baker knew that he was part of a rigid system, but he did what he thought best to contribute positively to society. (But my favorite character was Lucy. I could imagine Lucy marching around and making all kinds of proclamations. I could hear Lucy’s voice—big and bold and adventurous.)

This is a quick feel-good read that’s perfect for people who like a little magic and enjoy some family-friendly fun.