Pre-owned Books – And The Characters Who Write In Them



  • a note of explanation or comment added to a text or diagram
  • the action of annotating a text or diagram.


Annotations tell a story. Just from flipping through a used book, you find out a lot about a person: his name is Grant, his professor only assigned four chapters in the book (or at least those are the only ones he read), he probably over-used underlining a bit, and he wrote questions in the margins instead of notes.

This may not seem important to you, but to me finding a book that’s been previously annotated is like finding gold. It’s an opportunity to create a picture of someone that no-one else has; it’s an odd, vague picture, but a unique picture nonetheless.

I have this romanticized idea that I’ll buy an annotated book, then I myself will write in the margins and bring it to a second-hand book store, where someone else will carry on the tradition, there are two main things wrong with this idea:

  1. I hoard my books, I couldn’t drop one off at a bookstore even if I wanted to
  2. most people think it a crime worthy of legal action to write in a book

To people who believe the latter, I would like to propose a challenge: Think about why you’re not writing in your books, to preserve their perfection? If that’s the case, then that’s the real crime. Every single book (even fiction!) has a purpose, every book has something it wants to teach you. By not using that book to its full purpose just to keep it “perfect”, is denying that book its full potential, and who would want to do that?

So consider this me trying to convince you to see the beauty of annotation: here is my list of my favorite types of annotations! (all examples taken from my own collection)


The Scribe

Maybe the most… inconveniencing annotator, The Scribe has decided to underline everything he thinks is important. And everything. Is. Important. There’s a note in every margin, and I can assure you if he was tested on this book, he got an A.  In my experience, this person almost always writes their name in the front cover of the book. Clearly type A.

There is a flaw to this style: underlining is used to emphasize important information and/or make it easier to find. When everything is underlined, nothing sticks out anymore. We’re back to square one.  It’s good to be thorough, but in this case, there can be too much of a good thing.


The Philosopher

The philosopher highlights only the most poignant quotes, only the quotes that brought a tear to the reader’s eye.  I find these precious, and love to see what quotes they found pretty enough to highlight.

Highlighting on its own can only be helpful to a certain extent.  Yes, it helps you find that important thing you wanted to remember, but a year from now when you re-read this will you remember why you wanted to remember?  Adding a note in the margin with every highlight will help you in the future, as well as force you to think a bit deeper into analyzing a quote.


The Struggler

The struggler is the annotator who writes intensive detailed notes… for the first seven chapters, after that we can only assume he has either dropped the class or given up.

A moment of silence for The Struggler please.

I know for a fact I’ve been this person.  It’s the first week of the semester, you feel optimistic about how much time you’ll have to read, but by the fifth chapter you realize you don’t exactly have an extra hour every night for detailed annotation.

Pace yourself, if your annotating for a class remember that you likely will have homework in every class.  So, if you overwhelm yourself by setting a precedent of thorough and overly analytical note taking, you’ll burn out quickly and be less motivated keep going.


The Required Reader

Reluctant sentence fragments.  Scribbly handwriting. Doesn’t want to be here.  Has been assigned a 2,000 word book report. Poor thing.

These books might also have an old school library slip in the front cover, or a few different names and handwritings in it, as they may have been donated by a school (I found this copy of To Kill A Mockingbird at Half Priced Books, in a pile of maybe twenty identical copies.)

Annotation is a beautiful thing when you look at it like this: it adds a whole other story to the pages of a book, only boosting the book’s original purpose.  After all, that’s what books are made to do, right?

If you still can’t get yourself to mark the pages, that’s ok, baby steps.  Try writing your annotations on sticky notes and placing them in the pages, I promise, the next time you read that book you’ll love seeing what you used to think about it, whether that opinion has changed or not!



The Ancient Price Tag

This is just a special chunk of a books history that I love to see, who else has sold this book? Where has it been?

(It’s listed as 1.25, but I can assure you I bought it used on amazon for 7 dollars)

4 thoughts on “Pre-owned Books – And The Characters Who Write In Them

  1. Great piece of writing, Halli. This deserves to be read by any of us who “annotate” and who own books with these kinds of markings. I’m wondering now how many of these categories fit my previous habits as reader/annotator.

    Liked by 1 person

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