Give me electronic marginalia, please

Alan Jacobs finds a quote that beautifully expresses why I don't want a Kindle, and why I wish the iPad were a stylus-friendly Mac tablet:

Of course, you can't take your pen to the screen. When it comes to annotating the written word, nothing yet created for the screen compares to the immediacy and simplicity of a pen on paper. The only effective way to respond to text on screen is to write about it. The keyboard stands in for the pen; but it demands more than a mere underline or asterisk in the margin. It demands that you write.

That, of course, was the reason for the pen all along: it's a physical reminder that you are not reading merely to consume the words of others passively, but that you have an obligation to respond. If the democratization of publishing is to reap any rewards, it can only do so if we all become better writers. The first step towards that is to assume the stance of a writer--to read others' words with an eye to improving your own. First, you must pick up the pen.

Jacobs notes that if you don't intend to annotate, and you're just reading for fun, there's nothing wrong with a Kindle or like technology. I totally agree. But since I've only read one fiction book in the past six months (sounds incredible, but that's all I can remember) and the vast majority of my reading life is spent noting in margins and dogearing pages, I don't have much need for a toy dedicated to recreational reading. One of my favorite undergraduate professors recently wrote to me and told me that he's enjoying a new era of reading without pen in hand; maybe someday I will too. But for now, I read with my mechanical pencil at the ready.

Quote originally from working library, found at the New Atlantis.

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I absolutely need to annotate, and I love the tactile experience of a book's weight and pages so much (mechanical pencil in hand, always)...I could never read electronically. I hope books never become obsolete in my lifetime.

I totally agree. We've been annotating as long as we've been writing. I'm no Luddite, I just teach college English. It's a professional necessity.


There are soft-tipped stylus-like writing implements for the iPhone/iPad screen. Apple uses them in-store so you can sign for a credit card purchase on an iPhone point-of-sale terminal.

I've never been much for writing in books. I think I'd rather jot notes on a separate paper, that could then be scanned into the computer, OCR'd, and indexed for later access, rather than locked up in the book itself.

The iphone is too small for a stylus to be worthwhile, especially when it comes to annotating a text. Now, if the iPad has the capability to allow annotation of e-books/pdfs using a stylus, I'll be interested, but that would require not just a stylus-friendly writing app but integration with the e-book reader, so I'm not holding my breath. And since I annotate the text directly (arrows, comments, footnotes, etc.) writing notes on a separate piece of paper would be useless for me. You may see it as "locked up in" the book, but I see it as "integrated with" the text. Tomato, tomahto.

NB: I don't even annotate my casebooks, so take this for what it's worth. Since receiving a Kindle for Christmas, my reading of things unrelated to school and/or blogs has increased at least tenfold. The best experience was waiting at the RiteAid for a prescription - pulled out the Kindle and lost myself. Anything that makes waiting at the RiteAid a pleasure is a boon to human happiness.

By Jacob Spencer (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink

Well, amen to that. Although I can't cram a stick of gum in my bookbag, much less a Kindle. That's why I had such high hopes for the iPad - if I could take notes on it AND read on it, I could leave my laptop home. . .