Annotations, Chapbooks & Life Notes

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Have you ever seen an annotated book? Any book with a proliferation of multi-colored tabs sticking out the pages like rainbow raindrops? Google ‘booktubers’, ‘booktok’, or ‘bookstagramer’ and you are bound to run across one of these inanimate bird-books. I am fascinated by these books and the concept of idea organizing that it embodies. I am sure as a book reviewer or a book editor, such annotation must come in handy, but as an individual who just enjoys to read and have an occasional conversation with another person that has or has not read the book I just finished, I find this to be a bit much. Combined with the fact that I pretty much exclusively read books borrowed from the public library and that would be quite a lot of work to undo.

I decided to dig a little to see what these “influencers” were actually annotating in the first place. What does that color-coding system mean? What are the colors categorizing? Well, common topics in color-coding systems are those such as: relationships, dislikes, quotes (of course), plot, funny moments, character development, etc. “Okay, cool,” I thought, “but what is the point of this when you are not publicly reviewing or professionally editing written work?” I am in a book club, but I am not going that in-depth with my conversation. Plus, I rarely, if ever purchase a book and keep it. If I do purchase a book, I read it and pass it on. Rarely in the past decade have I re-read a book, so revisiting my thoughts on my first read does not factor into my mind. (However, I do have my Harry Potter moments – I have re-read the heck out of that series.)

Book annotation got me thinking about a conversation I had with our interim director about chapbooks. I had gone into his office to talk about a few projects/committees that the library is involved with and I brought along my little Moleskin notebook that I use for pretty much anything to do with work. This caught his attention and, following my explanation of my ‘catch-all’ notebook, he said, “It’s like a chapbook. You must know about that, being a writer [of sorts]?” No. No, I did not know, so he told me a little about it.

A chapbook is small publication of up to about 40 pages, sometimes bound with a saddle stich. In early modern Europe, a chapbook was a work of street literature produced cheaply, in genres ranging from almanacs, children's literature, folk tales, ballads, nursery rhymes, pamphlets, poetry, and political and religious tracts.1 The term ‘chapbook’ is also in use for present-day publications, commonly short, inexpensive booklets.1 Not quite what I have going on with my notebook, but I understood what he meant. One of the most memorable things I observed while visited Paris was a man, deep in conversation with a friend on the Metro, who pulled out a thin pocket-sized notebook from his back pocket along with a pen, and quickly jotted down whatever it was that his friend said that struck him so. It seemed such a simple, obvious genius, that it stuck with me.

After publishing his book, The Portrait of the Lady in 1881, Henry James was quoted in saying that it was already a matter of regret that he had “lost too much by losing, or rather by not having acquired, the note-taking habit”.2 It seems many writers have the ubiquitous notebook and pen with them, filled with quotes, anecdotes from dinner parties, story ideas, things noticed while travelling or simple being present in everyday life – observations from the ‘goings-on’ of society and nature. Author Susie Boyt has coined them as “messy little attics of the mind”.2

I feel like this is what these book-annotators are doing with their annotating. Instead of being a “messy attic” or sporadic musings scrawled in the margins of a book, they are just organizing their thoughts and reflections better than we scatterbrained individuals. I realized that was what appealed so much to me as I gazed at those aesthetical pleasing thick tomes with the collection of rectangular, rainbow feathers sticking out of the sides. It invokes in me the excitement of seeing the interior of someone else’s mind: their thoughts, their personal observations, philosophical ideas and musings, little nuggets of wisdom that I have yet to stumble upon. Because, for me, that is what makes any living being so magical and magnetic: its curiosity and pure, unsullied wonder at the world around it. It is impossible for us to experience life other than through our own bodies and minds, but I find that reading the scattered words written by an author meant only for their own reflection, I can find a minute way of experiencing the world through their consciousness.

-Samantha Hanchett, Marketing + Outreach Coordinator

*Please note that the opinions of “Thoughts” are just that and do not necessarily represent the views of the Thomas County Public Library.

1Chapbooks. “Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia”. 4 March 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapbook,

2‘Messy attics of the mind’: what’s inside a writer’s notebook? The Guardian, 6 April 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/06/tales-masters-notebooks-stories-henry-james.


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