Why I Engage in the Risky Behavior of Reading with a Pen

This article was written by Sarah L. Webb.

I’m addicted to reading with a pen in my hand.

So addicted, in fact, that I have to have a pen even when I’m reading on my Kindle.

Not only am I addicted to reading with pens, but I’m also a pen pusher. My goal is to turn my adult students into pen users just like me (which is a lot harder than pushing pens to youth readers).

I wasn’t always this way.

There was a time when I left pages pristinely unmarked without even the most innocent underlining of a favorite passage.

I read straight through entire novels, textbooks, poems, stories, and essays without stopping to jot a single note.

But that all changed once I entered the world where all things always change– high school.

It was Mrs. Wimberly, my tenth grade English teacher with her wispy curls of silver hair, that got me started.

“Highlight a passage from the reading that you want to discuss in class,” she said.

How appalling! Make marks in a book?

I rebelled, at first, by writing out passages on a separate sheet of paper. But the passages started getting longer and longer. And there were more and more of them to write.

A few chapters into The Mayor of Casterbridge, I took a yellow highlighter, bit my lip, and for the first time ever in my life, I placed a mark inside of a book.

Nothing happened. The book police didn’t rush out and handcuff me. Thomas Hardy’s ghost didn’t appear and slap the book out of my hand. I’d gotten away with it, and it felt pretty great too.

I really got hooked in college.

Dr. Richard Lyons told the class: “The more you write notes in your book, the easier it is to write the paper.”

That was all I needed to hear to send me into a spiral of marginal notes, brackets, underlining, arrows, asterisks, stars, question marks, and exclamation points. All of this on the gritty pages of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

I was high.

I had conversations with books. Told them about parallel events that happened in my own life. Questioned them about their motives. Connected them with their cousins. Stole from them whatever gems of genius I could manage to shake from the between their covers.

After that, it no longer mattered what I was reading or why I was reading it. I just wanted to thoroughly engaging with whatever text I read.

Even when I can’t write in the text, I keep a journal next to me. The journal gives me the chance to expand my reading notes into poems, essays, drawings, or other inspired creations.

Why I Push Pens into my Students’ Hands

I don’t expect students to go crazy about annotating texts, though I’m happy if they enjoy it, and I think some of them do.

I encourage my students to mark up the text because it’s a literacy tool.

Annotations help students understand and retain what they’re reading. It helps them focus on the text and allows them to see things they’d miss in a more casual reading.

Writing notes while they read, and preferably on the text itself, helps them read, learn, and write better.

They’re usually reluctant at first. Perhaps for the same reasons I was reluctant in the tenth grade. No one had ever introduced me to the wonders of writing while reading. But I’ve vowed never to keep that secret to myself.

I’m curious to know your take on keeping notes while reading. Please share in the comments.

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Sarah L. Webb is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at LSU. Her primary research interests include literacy, multicultural literature, digital media, and black women’s studies. She also blogs about colorism. Sarah has previously managed websites and social media accounts for local TV stations, taught high school English and college writing courses, and worked as a freelance writer and editor. Learn more at her website www.slwrites.com.

3 thoughts on “Why I Engage in the Risky Behavior of Reading with a Pen

  1. Loved this. Was wondering, though, why writing in pencil wouldn’t be a happy medium between marking up a book with permanent ink, and refusing to leave any notes in a text at all? Granted, pencil is hard to see, sometimes….

    1. Great question, Chris! I think pencils are a happy medium. Readers just have to be willing to erase, and sometimes erasing isn’t complete, and pages become worn from lots of erasing. I also know some readers who enjoy being able to revisit their annotations later, sometimes years after, and seeing how their thought process has evolved, or even comparing notes with previous readers who left marks in the margin.

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