Annotating a Literary Text
As we can see from this, Edgar Allen Poe was a writer of marginalia. He was not alone. Once when I was in the Lilly Library at Indiana University, I examined Sylvia Plath's copy of James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist and what fascinated me were the passages which she had annotated and underscored. Writers would logically be among the first to interact with texts as Poe describes above.
These pages are about the process of annotating literary texts. The explanations assume you are looking for strategies for reading which are somewhere between reading extensively and expansively purely for pleasure or escape, and reading intensely and attentively for analysis and study. Academic work with literature usually implies the latter form of reading, since you are interested in not only enjoyment but appreciation of what makes the literature a work of art or an art that works!
One of the primary techniques or strategies for focusing your engagement with the work is the practice of marking the text. This consists of three main techniques: underlining, annotating in the margins, and representing the work in some graphic or visual form. As experienced readers and students of texts, most of us have used these techniques in order to read and remember expository prose (i.e. essays or textbooks or reports. While the activity for literary works can be similar, sometimes focusing, for example, on remembering material for a test (sorry, EAP!), most of the time it is freer and more oriented to a reader's response or a readers effort to pin down formal features of the text.
I know of no research that establishes the demographics of who does this, when or how often or to what kinds of works. However, I can tell from my own experience that it is a common act for students of literature at all levels and just about mandatory for anyone who will discuss a text in a classroom in any thorough manner.
What are the various things that a reader does or looks for in marking or responds to? We can start with Edgar Allen Poe's list from the above excerpt:
We can add simply that we also ask ourselves what text strategies of the work can we appreciate? Can we
There is, of course, no exhaustive catalog of the things one can do as one reads with active attention, not only to what you are reading but your own meta-cognitive activity of reading.
Many would advise the reader to read the work first without worrying about marking or annotating at all. However, my experience is that once a certain kind of attention is invited by the work itself, I can no longer read without a pencil in hand. I say, to each her own choices. I can say that the second and third readings will differ and other things will spring out of the work to be marked or annotated.
If you plan to write about a piece of literature, especially a short story or poem, make several copies of it at a copier because you may want to use the strategy of annotating and marking for different aspects or features of the text. For example, you may want to read closely for characters and characterization. You may want to read a poem for prosody, scanning and marking rhyme schemes. Various readings can be refined and require their own notes.
You may want to read again Mortimer Adler's essay on "How to Mark a Book" as well. <http://radicalacademy.com/adlermarkabook.htm>
Visit an example of one reader annotating a short story
First read the story. Following these links will take you to online copies of William Carlos William's, "The Use of Force." The third link is to a copy of a version annotated by myself as I prepared the story for a classroom discussion. First are links to the story itself available online. Use these links to read the very short story before examining the comments and markings on the subsequent page.
Then here is the link to the underlined and annotated version. The marks are themselves annotated as I elaborate on the purpose of the annotation. Click on them as well.