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The Risks and Rewards of Giving Annotated Books as Gifts

Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Annotating books is nothing new. People have been scrawling in the margins since there were margins to scrawl in. On social media, however, I’m seeing a lot of annotation lately. A book festooned with multicolored flags has seemingly become visual shorthand for “here’s a book I love and I can prove it.” This phenomenon is fascinating. For one, I think it’s great to truly use the books you own. Your job is not to provide a storage facility for books and keep them in pristine shape; your job is to read them. And I think it’s a compelling benefit of acquiring print books. Don’t annotate your library books, friends! You can certainly annotate an ebook, of course, but it’s harder to share.

While annotating a book is one way of keeping track of your own reading experiences, it can also be a way to share a reading experience. Book clubs and buddy reading can only get so granular when in-person time with other readers is limited. Annotating is the way to go deep. One of the most intimate ways of sharing a reading experience is to give someone a book you annotated. Like any act that involves wearing your heart on your sleeve, there are risks and rewards. So before you take a pen to your most beloved volume, let’s think those through.

Reward: A Deep, Sustained Look into Your Inner Life

When I wrote about the friendship dynamics of book recommendations, I acknowledged that sharing books is a deeply personal act. To go through a book line by line making marginalia about your emotional reactions to passages is a beautiful and vulnerable act. The person who reads your annotated copy will likely get a sense of what moves you better than you might have been able to articulate otherwise.

A wonderful thing about novels is that they are so big and always imperfect in fascinating ways. Whatever little quirks in a book draw your attention will likely fascinate the reader of your annotated book. For those I hold dear, I am charmed by what fascinates them, especially if it’s different than what fascinates me. I love the idea of being given a catalog of someone else’s thoughts and reactions.

Risk: The Cringe of It All

Story time: When I was in middle school, I desperately wanted to listen to albums by a particular band, but I could not afford to buy their music. I asked a boy in my class if he could make copies of his albums for me, and he obliged. Because the copies were on tape cassettes, what he gave me were essentially annotated versions of the albums. He recorded himself talking in between tracks, providing his own introductions. Picture something in between radio DJing and the stage banter musicians themselves do. 

I couldn’t listen. Never made it through a single tape. I wanted to crawl in a hole with secondhand embarrassment whenever his staticky voice came over the speaker of my bubblegum pink tape player. It was too intimate, too vulnerable. I avoided talking to him about music forever after that.

Luckily for anyone wanting to annotate something for me now, my emotions have leveled quite a bit since middle school (imagine if they didn’t???). But there is a real risk of cringe. If someone highlights a passage to say it’s deep and I find it saccharine, uh-oh. If someone swoons over something I find goofy, do I question their tastes? The harsh truth is that any time you open yourself up to another person, you run the risk that they’re not going to like that closer look.

Reward: An Augmented Reading Experience

I consistently try, and consistently fail, to slow down as a reader. Annotating books is one good way to read more carefully. Reading someone else’s annotations is another. I appreciate the idea of stopping to think at a section I might have glossed over had it not been highlighted.

I also appreciate the different viewpoint the annotater brings to their reading experience. Imagine they mark a section as “SO TRUE,” and I think to myself, “Really? That’s not how I see it.” Now I have an opportunity to think deeply about whose experiences are being mirrored in the book and what that means. The annotations deliver an entire extra layer of perspective into the reading experience.

Risk: A Diminished Reading Experience

Here’s something nerve-wracking: watching a movie for the first time with someone who loves the movie and insisted on watching it together. They have one eye on the screen and another on you, their mouth hanging open like a moray eel as they anticipate your reactions. Please don’t put me in that position and I will do my best to spare you as well!

I don’t like anyone telling me how to think or feel. I want to form my own opinions. In that way, the recipient of an annotated book may not appreciate having the content pre-processed. The annotations may be distracting for someone trying to get into the flow of the book itself, and they may find the experience jarring.

To Annotate or Not To Annotate?

To my mind, these risks can be easily mitigated. I wouldn’t advise springing an annotated book on someone out of nowhere. Or if you do that, follow my aforementioned advice on book recommendations and NEVER BRING IT UP AGAIN. If your annotations were enjoyed, trust me, you’ll find out. If you find the person scrupulously dodging eye contact, I’m sorry. You may have done the equivalent of my middle school cassette tape dubber. Better luck next time.

I think the best way to give an annotated book is as a gift to someone who has a) expressed interest in receiving one and b) already read and enjoyed the book you’re planning to annotate. Rereading a beloved book is the perfect time to be distracted by highlights and doodles and stickers and whatever else you jazz up the pages with. Honestly it would be a dream to give or receive something like that.

Once you’ve committed to giving an annotated book as a gift, read up on how to annotate well, and shop for some annotation kits. You’re creating a unique treasure, after all, so pour your heart and your mind into it.