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Close Reading and Annotating Pride and Prejudice

A copy of the book Pride and Prejudice on top of a black planner and a notebook.

Books make me feel things. Even holding a book I love in my hand will make me feel comforted, excited, at ease. So when I get a chance to sit down and read that book, I don’t just want to consume the content, I want to luxuriate in it. I want to sink down into it. I want to live there. 

And when I really love a book, I will make notations of things I love in it. 

Many readers and writers do this. I once read an essay by Joyce Carol Oates where she said whenever she read anything, she would place a blank note card into the book and make notation. I could fill up a notecard pretty quickly. I have tiny notebooks that I will tuck into the book, or I’ll flag things with Post-its or washi tape.

But I was never taught how to annotate a book. In fact, I remember watching my classmates highlighting sections of our assigned readings in high school and wondering, “How do they know what to highlight?” and “How do they know what the instructor is going to ask on this quiz?” We were reading The Scarlet Letter and had just taken this incredibly difficult test where it felt like everyone had read a different book than I had. I asked a friend who had aced it:

 “How did you know the answer to that question?” 

They told me, “It was right here in the introduction.” 

“We were expected to read the introduction?!”

I didn’t know the introduction counted! I didn’t know what to look for. And I didn’t know how this system worked. But I knew I loved books and I knew I loved stories. 

When I was in college it was the first time that I realized that writing had the capacity to not only tell a story, but to do it in an impactful way that was rewarding to those who looked closer. We were reading The Handmaid’s Tale. The instructor asked the name of the narrator. I was stumped. Almost all of us were stumped when the instructor said it was not Ofred. She had us turn to the end of the first chapter where the women were mouthing their names to each other in the darkness of the detention center, and the only one who we had not been introduced to the reader as a character in flashback is June. Who was June? June was the true name of the narrator. We were blown away. 

I was blown away. I had never paid that much attention before. And I had never wanted to be able to do something so bad before. That was the moment I decided I wanted to be a writer and I knew if I wanted to be a writer on that level, I needed to start paying attention. .  

When I go to my bookshelves -- many of my books are old, having moved with me several times -- I will pick up one of those old books and find a note I had written at the time. I’ll sometimes see things I have underlined – which must have been impressive because I do not like putting marks in my books. I'll find the receipts, so I can even see the date I purchased the book, along with a coupon for a free cookie in the cafe. And when I see this, I will wonder what was going on in my life then. It’s like a time capsule.

Because when you annotate, you mark the things that feel important at the time. If you’re in school, you might be driven by anticipating what the teacher might ask, but outside of school, it’s more likely to be an impactful quote, an impressive word, the moment you felt something inside you that compelled you to grab a highlighter or pen. 

In March, I am leading a seminar about close reading, annotating, and getting intimate with Pride and Prejudice. I picked this book because it is full of wonderful witty moments, swoony declarations of ardent affection, and because it might be one of the most reread books ever written. It’s a classic in every sense of the world, and I am excited to share it with others. 

Read Books. Wear Boots




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