Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The pleasures of underlining

with 6 comments

The author's copy of Proust

There are some readers who would never dream of marking up a book’s pristine pages, but I’m an inveterate underliner. In some ways, I don’t think I’ve really read a book until I’ve had a chance to go through it with a pen. Back in high school and college, I tended to underline books in their entirety, and when I look back at my old copies of Dante or The Anatomy of Melancholy, it can be hard to find an unmarked sentence. This might seem to defeat the practical purpose of highlighting selected passages, but I wasn’t thinking in terms of later reference: it was my way of blazing a trail, of reminding myself how far I’d gone into Dante’s dark forest. Underlining a phrase leaves a distinct, permanent signpost for my future self long after the details of the book have faded. These days, my memory for what I’ve read is spotty at best, but when I open a book and see a passage I’ve marked, I know for sure that I’ve been there.

But I’m a little more selective about what I underline now than I was a decade ago. With nonfiction, I tend to focus on striking facts or insights, especially if I think they might be helpful later, either because I might put them in a story or because they offer useful perspectives or advice. (Many of the Quotes of the Day on this blog were originally found this way.) When I’m doing research for a novel, underlining serves a clear purpose: I’ll usually read through the book once, marking whatever catches my eye, then go back over it again to transfer the major points onto notecards. I’ve found that it saves time to indicate important passages with a thin pen or pencil line in the margin, much as readers of an earlier era scored the page with their thumbnails, which allows me to quickly flip through the book to find what I’ve marked. And a passage that seemed only mildly interesting at the time can later turn out to have enormous resonance. When I’m trying to figure out the plot of a novel, I always go through my old notecards to see if there’s anything I can salvage, and something I wrote down in passing will often have an important role to play years later.

The author's copy of Walden

With fiction, the process is a little harder to pin down. The real test is whether I think an underlined passage will give me pleasure when I come back to it in the future, and I’ll often hesitate for a second before committing myself. It might seem like I’m overthinking it, but I’ve found that looking back through a book I’ve selectively underlined is one of my great joys as a reader. When I revisit my marked copies of Proust or Thoreau, with my eye skipping from one passage to the next, I hit all the high points at once, and whenever I’m reading this way, I never want to do anything else. Just opening The Magic Mountain at random, for instance, I find this:

On the whole, however, it seemed to him that although honor had its advantages, so, too, did disgrace, and that indeed the advantages of the latter were almost boundless.

Even more interesting is when I come across a passage that I don’t remember, and which at first glance doesn’t seem to hold much of interest. If I look more closely, however, I’ll often find that it struck me for reasons that have since lost their urgency, leaving a fossil or snapshot of my emotional life at the time. The result is the closest thing I have to an intellectual autobiography. When I underline a book, it becomes a part of me.

As a result, most of the books I’ve bought in the last ten years are full of highlighted passages, as well as notes on the endpapers, where I’ll often jot ideas or observations if I don’t have a notebook handy. (Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve even been known to lightly underline library books, although only in pencil, and I always go back to erase my work once I’m done.) And it isn’t nearly the same in a Kindle, although it can be interesting to see what other readers have marked. Underlining a physical book brings the hand and the mind into a sort of temporary harmony, and I often feel, rightly or not, that I’m reading more deeply or attentively when I’m holding a pen. Just as I think it’s important to use pen and paper whenever possible while writing, I take pains to keep reading a tactile experience: marking it by hand turns a book from one of thousands of identical objects into something that belongs to me alone, and in the end, it comes to feel like a living being, or a friend.

Written by nevalalee

May 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

6 Responses

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  1. I agree! Underlining is very helpful for me, especially with readings I find to be rather difficult. I didn’t notice how much I’d underline my work until I took an English class where I had to explain what I did as I was reading a particular essay. Pretty cool and helpful


    May 7, 2013 at 9:59 am

  2. yes of course to help you find a certain quote, or something without the thousands of paper clips or cut off papers to help us find??? Now I wouldn’t do this with a checked out book from the library?


    May 7, 2013 at 10:19 am

  3. I too am an underline culprit, a hangover of my English Literature days. I love pulling out my old, battered copies of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to see what I wrote on them all those years ago. Looking through Conrad now I see that I have underlined/notated every page, no doubt because it was quite a dense book for a 17 year old to work through. The reason I still do it is because I Hate losing a quote after finishing a book, flicking back through madly trying to find it! Thankyou for this post, which made me pull out Conrad again.
    A quick quote from him: ‘…it is impossible to convey the life sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence….We live, as we dream – alone…’

    The Paperbook Blog

    May 7, 2013 at 5:13 pm

  4. You underline. I highlight. :-)


    May 7, 2013 at 7:47 pm

  5. @tashamercer7: Same here. Underlining helps me focus, especially for more challenging texts.

    @kellyscott57: I feel a little guilty about marking up library books, even if I erase it later. I haven’t done this in a while.

    @The Paperbook Blog: Agreed—it’s a lot of fun to look back at what I underlined while reading in college.

    @inthepottershands: I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’ve never cared for highlighters. I find it a little difficult to get the line of color just the right height…


    May 7, 2013 at 9:02 pm

  6. I absolutely hate reading a book that someone else has marked!!! It interrupts my reading while I wonder, “Why did they mark THAT?”

    Dinata Misovec

    April 25, 2016 at 11:05 am

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