For the first time in a long time I sat down to read without writing in the book. I had walked all the way to a small park in the center of Paris (Jardin Nelson Mandela, just west of Les Halles), sat down on a concrete bench and took out my poorly taken care of copy of Paradise Lost. Usually there are large groups of Algerians listening to indecipherable French rap music through their phones, but no music today! It should have been so nice…
I had forgotten my pen.
With nothing to write with, I had no choice but to carry on, I had walked all the way there after all. It was terrible, and it totally reassured me of the value of marginalia. Especially with a long, complicated book like Paradise Lost, writing in the margins as you read really helps you keep track of what’s going on, who is talking, etc. I also like to make notes of obvious references to other literature that Milton put in his poem (usually Latin and Greek works). Further, it helps with pacing, it is very hard to skim if you are busy underlining, circling words, and writing short reactions.
Reading ought to be a conversation. Writing in the margins keeps you more engaged, and now that you can’t unconsciously skim, you retain much more. Beyond retention, this process also adds a very personal touch to your book. It makes it much more entertaining to return to five or ten years later. An should you want to find a quote that you really liked 400 pages ago, you probably marked it the first time you saw it and can quickly find it by flipping through the pages.
Lastly, when you read a really long novel with an enormous cast (Russians…) it can make it way easier to follow. When a long conversation started between major characters, I’d write right up front which Nikolay this is; how he is related to Sofia, which house they are at, etc. After doing this for a few hundred pages you develop an extremely intimate understanding of the family trees and begin to glimpse complicated family politics. You might be surprised how many things were slipping beneath your notice.
Give it a try, it might seem tedious at first, but it is a habit worth developing.