Curriculum, Engaged reading

Engaged reading, part II: engaged annotation

In the way that we were taught to annotate texts in school, a standard annotation might have pursued a formula something like the following: ‘on this page, such and such character does such and such. This connects with the novel’s overall theme of blank, producing the holistic theme of blank.’ 

This is obviously simplified, but it nevertheless contains the essential beats. In these annotations, we observed what characters did; either connected this to what we’d seen other characters do, or buttressed it with extrinsic information; then aggregated these variables to produce a meaning. 


As we saw in the previous post, the purpose of these meanings—whether or not we knew it at the time—was to make us feel safe. In the story of perfection, we believed that the worst possible thing was that we ourselves be seen as characters in a story, and as such, we subordinated everyone else to this status beneath our gaze, positioning ourselves atop a balcony from which we could see without ourselves being seen. If we could see the characters in this way, then we could use the information we gathered from them to perfect our next move, such that we never made a mistake. Alternately, we could use it to judge them as inferior to ourselves, such that we never made a move in the first place. Most of the time, this is what we did, and the net result of our annotations about the characters, of our judgements about them, was stasis. 

What if we instead annotated texts in a way that brought us off the balcony, out of the story of ourselves, and into the story of the characters? This would be a recreation of the orientation to story we bore as children, as discussed in the previous post. As such, it would open us up to the characters’ wisdom in a manner that could improve our lives. 


The above initiatory step constitutes what I call ‘engaged annotation,’ and its basic tenets are simple, though also fundamentally different from the kind of annotation we performed in school. In engaged annotation, we first write about the character in the first person, and in the present tense. The first of these practices jettisons us out of our own perspective and into the perspective of the character, and the second renders this experience immediate. Second, we either hazard an observation about the character as ourselves from this position, or ask a question about this subject. We do not allude to either larger ‘themes’ or the content of our own lives, both of which tendencies imply a desire to get out of uncomfortable territory, to step back onto the balcony and into the story of perfection. Writing engaged annotations of this kind readies us to wholeheartedly identify with the characters, an act which constitutes the ‘meat’ of this process of reading literature and also the font of a text’s wisdom. 

As an example of engaged annotation in a work of literature, I’m looking at pp 178-9 of my edition of Huckleberry Finn, the climactic pp on which Huck wrestles with whether to send a letter to Miss Watson confessing that Jim has been recaptured and sold into slavery, in which case Jim will remain a slave; or to be a bad boy, and ‘go to hell,’ and steal Jim out of slavery himself. Summarizing these pp, I could write a standard annotation that might run something like the following: ‘Huck’s fantastical lens on the situation demonstrates an inability to take Jim’s plight seriously, yet another instance of the latter’s dehumanization.’ As discussed above, this annotation hits on the essential beats of making an observation about a character, connecting this to other material, then deriving meaning from it. Furthermore, it’s true, and I could use it to protect myself in a manner akin to the story of perfection: I could use it to write a paper, make a comment in class, or to sound smart or aware. 

However, there’s someone else not featured in this annotation who was nevertheless present while reading: me. As such, I learn nothing about myself while writing it or rereading it, and I close off my own routes to further learning. I am once again in the story of perfection. 

What about this as a rendering of the same moment: ‘As Huck, my level of morality is that I am either good, or bad; and good if I do what I’m told, and bad if I don’t. As such, I must learn to disobey my mind, and withstand pain, if I am to do what’s right; I am learning to follow my heart.’ 

A few things about this note:

  1. I simply feel differently when writing it. Notably, I feel a sort of drop in my gut, which I take to mean that I am putting myself beyond my comfort zone, that something constitutes an act of courage. Here, I am thrusting myself into the vantage of a character my mind might otherwise tell me is too different from me to learn from, and I don’t know where the experience will go. When I write standard annotations, I usually feel and learn nothing.
  2. Although I am not excusing Huck in the above annotation, neither am I judging him for things which, from his position, he couldn’t possibly know. As such, I am journeying into the perspective of a character in the manner which I did as a child, a practice which will ultimately bear wisdom.

In terms of output, I have found that doing this throughout the course of reading a novel, produces about 4-6,000 words of annotations, and that by the time I finish reading in this way, I am more than ready to wholeheartedly identify with the characters. Usually a bit before I finish, the engaged annotations start to peter out; I feel that I am starting to know the characters, and that no further observations or questions are necessary. Moreover, this is where ‘theme’ and ‘meaning’ can start to organically arise; having experienced myself as a multitude of characters throughout the course of reading a book, I start to notice correspondences among them, and I become able to note these not for the sake of fortifying my story of perfection, but for the sake of learning from the characters how to live. In this subtle shift, I also unfurl the shadow of myself as a teacher. 

If you are interested in trying out engaged annotation for yourself the next time you read a work of literature, one thing worth knowing is that there are as many ways of doing this as there are multiple intelligences, and likely more. Recently when presenting at a conference a man asked me whether it would be possible to do this using music, and I responded by asking him who one of his favorite characters in literature was. He said that it was Gandalf from Lord of the rings, and I told him that he could write and perform a song that he felt encapsulated the character. We discussed how strings and light drumming might communicate Gandalf’s subtlety and esotericism, and how there might be a sort of loneliness here, and how the process of producing this music would infuse the man with the feeling of Gandalf. Similarly, I could see someone drawing or painting characters rather than performing annotations, or even simply dwelling in meditative reflection. The only essential feature is that we feel into the characters in a text on their own terms, one whose success we can tell based on how we feel in our bodies. 

Using our bodies as a tool of assessment will be covered in a later post, but for now, I leave you with the practice of engaged annotation and its resonances with Huck Finn, Gandalf, and our spiritual, transforming natures. As with the practice of antipodiatry, this one alone stands to radically improve our lives; it loosens our grip on our story of ourselves, which in turn makes us more free, relaxed, and receptive to things like intuition. If you do decide to experiment with engaged annotation in some form on your own, I’d love to hear of the results below!

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