Becoming a Margin Man

by Mr. Sheehy

I wish I were a margin man.

I want to be the kind of reader who can note insights in the margins of my text and leave a trail hot so I can find it again later. Perhaps someone will appreciate those notes someday—say a child or grandchild who acquires a copy of a particular book; or perhaps that record will be of interest only to me. Either way, if there exists an ideal of the kind of reader I want to be, David McCullough may have described it best in his biography of John Adams:

Unlike Jefferson, who seldom even marked a book, and then only faintly in pencil, Adams, pen in hand, loved to add his comments in the margins. It was part of the joy of reading for him, to have something to say himself, to talk back to, agree or take issue with, Rousseau, Condorcet, Turgot, Mary Wollstoncraft, Adam Smith, or Joseph Priestly. “There is no doubt that people are in the long run what the government make out of them . . . ,” Adams read in Rousseau. “The government ought to be what the people make it,” he wrote in response.

At times his marginal observations nearly equaled what was printed on the page, as in Mary Wollstoneccraft’s French Revolution, which Adams read at least twice and with delight, since he disagreed with nearly everything she said. To her claim that government must be simple, for example, he answered, “The clock would be simple if you destroyed all the wheels . . . but it would not tell the time of day.” On a blank page beside the contents, he wrote, in part:

If [the] empire of superstition and hypocrisy should be overthrown, happy indeed will it be for the world; but if all religion and all morality should be over-thrown with it, what advantage will be gained? . . .

In all, in this one book, Adams’s marginal notes and comments ran to some 12,000 words. (619)

The most heavily annotated page in Adams's copy of the French Revolution. Look at the size of those margins! (from the John Adams Library:

Adams seems to fit the first character Billy Collins sketches in a poem called “Marginalia,” one who is vehement and definite in his opposition to what is printed on the page:

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Connor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

In moments, I have been this character. In a book on writer’s notebooks, where the writer aspired to make all her students follow writing habits similar to professional writers, I scrawled angrily, “They’re not all going to be writers!” But it’s one of the only notes I jotted in the book. One time in college I was so frustrated with a long poem—it was “Child Harold’s Pilgrimage”—that in exasperation I scrawled, “What the heck is he saying” and then stabbed the page so severely that the imprint went through Child Harold and into the rest of Lord Byron’s section in the anthology. I reread that passage recently, and it is tough, but I am sure it’s infinitely tougher on five hours of sleep and read in large chunks with little time to spare, which is surely the rest of the context surrounding that little tantrum. Such examples may constitute margin notation, but more what they show is that the ways I am not like John Adams make a long list.

I began marking books in high school, when I took a class where we were asked to buy the books. Thus I bought Robert Pirsig’s The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and attempted to explain to Pirsig ways I thought he was wrong. I was only 18, so I felt a bit daunted by the task, but also felt the need to tell Pirsig, or at least myself, what I thought about particular passages.

In college the art of marking passages became a necessity, but I still did so timidly, as Collins describes:

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

I definitely used pencil, and I was definitely tentative. One time I went to a professor and asked him what he marked when he read, not so much because I felt like I could use an insider’s tip to sharpen my own skills, but because I figured I wasn’t doing it right.

As tentative as I was, marking was fun and became a bit of a game for me. I’d mark in pencil while I read, trying to identify key passages in the literature, occasionally writing a word in the margin, but more frequently just underlining a sentence or two. When I’d finish a chapter, I’d flip back through the book and review the underlined passages, so as to solidify in my mind the thrust of what I’d read. In class, the professors would lecture through the book, and if they mentioned a passage, I’d underline it in pen. I’d give myself proverbial bonus points if I had already underlined the passage they read, and I used the frequency of these bonus points as a measure of my improvement as a reader.

But that is my most dominant marking habit—marking important passages, mostly for future retrieval. It means that for the most part I mark things I support in what I am reading.  I am like the

Fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

Timothy Keller gets lots of checkmarks when I read him, and when I want to find a passage in The Reason for God, I am reasonably confident that while flipping through the book I can focus my attention on just the underlined passages, because if I liked it enough to remember it, I probably underlined it.  Granted, my underlining can get to be a bit much in my favorite books: that copy of John Adams is so full of underlined passages that I created a note card index to my markings, so when I want to return to a particular section I begin by consulting the note card (I found the passage on Adams’s marginalia on the fourth note card in the set).

Yet the interaction aspect of such notation lacks something; in fact, it’s generous to call it notation, since there are usually no notes accompanying the underlining. I obviously aspire to interact more thoroughly with my texts—hence the John Adams ideal—but somehow I don’t quite achieve the goal. Mostly the margins of my books contain checkmarks and the occasional name of another writer who makes a similar point and who popped into my mind while reading.

Inherent in this judgment about my lack of notation is a conviction that I could be reading better. Like Thoreau sucking the marrow out of life, I want to suck the marrow of wisdom from a book so thoroughly that the spine crumbles. If I were interacting with it more, jotting more insight into the margin, that would be evidence of such appreciation.

In my time since college, however, I have come to realize that my lack of conversation in the margins of my books may have less to do with my ability to read well and more to do with my habits of reading and noting. To this point, noting for me has been an act of marking, of place-keeping. I note so as to find it later, to make reference more simple and to highlight key passages for consideration. Though I rant at times of extreme objection, I know I am not like John Adams, for he and those like him are conversing more thoroughly than I ever have while reading. I am closer to those Collins describes, whose markings in a book assert how much we want to be like Adams more than how much we are like him:

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages

What is the difference, then, between me and readers like Adams?

I think Alan Jacobs reveals part of it for me in his recent book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Most fundamentally, Jacobs praises the act of reading slowly: “We should not underestimate what can be accomplished by those who are willing to read more slowly and with greater care” (70).

Jacobs links reading with greater care to marking texts, and that link is particularly important, he shows, when it concerns questions or confusion:

If you write the question in the book’s margin—even if you just scrawl a question mark—you are marking the scene of your confusion. You are registering your puzzlement, not for the book’s sake but for your own sake. The interruption in the flow of your reading is a significant event, and you are quite literally taking note of it. (56)

It’s the interruption of the reading that Jacobs then focuses on, pointing out the virtue of stopping to write out the entire question in the margin of the book, as it

Takes more time—it gets you out of the flow of mere passive reception—and . . . it forces you to articulate the precise nature of your vexation. A mere question mark could indicate confusion, disagreement, a feeling of lacking information—any one of a dozen things. When you write out your question you render the discomfit exactly. (57)

In writing a question I discover what is forming at the back of my mind, and if I were to read on, I would likely forget the specific nature of my curiosity. Stopping gives me time to respond, to form what Jacobs calls “attentive response” (61).

That attentive response is a major part of what I lack in comparison to Adams and his ilk, but it’s not all. I may read King Lear as slowly as I can, but the truth is that I rarely have insight inside me worthy of writing on the page. Yet I noticed something this year while teaching in my Shakespeare class. In preparing our reading of the plays, I was enjoying reading into the deeper layers of Shakespeare—those layers T.S. Eliot described as revealing themselves gradually and which I for the most part happily ignored while in college. I ascribe my interest in these layers to my re-reading of plays—it was the second time I’d taught the class, and I was benefiting from the re-teaching of Othello and As You Like It. That seems to me to be a clear argument for the virtue of revisiting the classics, and a perfect example of how men like John Adams gain the insight they did. It wasn’t the first time he’d interacted with the ideas in the text, and the second time around, he was more prepared to respond and interact.

That’s not to say that Adams reread every book he marked in, but McCullough notes in the passage I quoted that Adams read Wollstoneccraft’s French Revolution at least twice, and his reading in his area of expertise—philosophy of government—certainly enabled him to think particularly critically when reading any book on such a topic (which means it wasn’t the first time he’d interacted with the ideas). Like it or hate it, if the book is worthwhile, one reading is likely not enough. In the words of Jacobs again, “A first encounter with a worthwhile book is never a complete encounter, and we are usually in error to make it a final one” (128).

I am reading a book right now called Education for Human Flourishing. Written by Paul Spears and Steven Loomis, it’s a pretty thick book examining the foundations to educational philosophy, and I am determined to extract every bit of wisdom I can from its pages. To do so I’ll need to use my pencil for more than underlining, and to do that, I’ll need to slow down, stop often, and review. So far, I’m improving: the first chapter is 30 pages long, and in its margins I have jotted 33 notes. I’ll never be John Adams, but perhaps with practice I can become a margin man.

Thanks for reading.


  • Collins, Billy. “Marginalia.” Sailing Alone Around the Room. New York: Random House, 2002.
  • Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. New York: Oxford, 2011.
  • McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.