I have never been one to write in my books or readings.

Sure, I would underline or highlights parts. Fold the corner of the pages that have the good stuff. But I’ve never scribbled notes or thoughts in the margins.




This is partly because I’ve gotten this far in life without establishing a good reading workflow. It is also partly because I’ve always seen books as precious objects that have to be preserved in good condition, perhaps a result of watching my mom plastic-wrap every new book we got growing up. We put the love of the book object ahead of the knowledge that we could actually get from the book (this seems so strange to me now.)

Sidebar, though: Plastic-wrapping books is an art.


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Screenshots from a Youtube tutorial by Helping Hand How-To channel.


You have to wrap the book tight enough so that the plastic (which stretches) doesn’t sag or shift. The wrapping also has to look good: there was an art to cutting and folding the notches on the edges of the book spine to make them line up exactly with the book. And you want to optimize your use of the roll of plastic, so you have to plan around the dimensions of the books you’re about to wrap. There are ready-made covers sold in bookstores, but they only come in a limited range of standard sizes, so they didn’t cover books of every size and thickness. Plus it always looks nicer when you do it right by hand anyway.


“Plastic wrap for books” from a vendor on Alibaba.


I don’t know why this isn’t a thing in the U.S., but ask anybody who grew up in Southeast Asia and they would be familiar with plastic-wrapped books. My best guess: the plastic protects the covers from being damaged by the humid air. Books were also hard to come by in SE Asia back then: only the best sellers were imported by the local bookstores, so each book was treated with loving care.

Back to marginalia-scribbling. Farnam Street called this out as an integral part of active reading, of ensuring that you retain what you read. And I’ve met a few people who do that actively (Did they learn this habit as kids?). So I’m game to bring this into my reading routine.

But how does that work when almost everything good to read today is digital? How do we scribble in the e-marginalia of Medium posts, Guardian articles, or Kindle ebooks? How do we do this on mobile? My hack right now is to write notes in Evernote as I read, but that requires me to be tabbing back and forth between the notes app and the reading in the browser.

For this to work, I need to be able to visually trace my notes back to the relevant parts in the articles. Ideally I need to mark directly onto the web pages. But the browser doesn’t let me do that. The grain of the web restricts what I can do on web pages. The designs of blog templates or web news articles do not explicitly leave room for my thoughts to coexist next to their beautifully laid out points. Web/mobile designers get to keep the content exactly as they designed it.

This is a tyranny of web design. It is as if HTML is naturally hydrophobic towards in-line markings. We have to resort to hacks – drawing on screenshots, keeping notes in a separate app –  to work around its restrictions.

Do book designers think about this all the time? Do they wish their books too could repel ink?


Addendum: Patrick Collison (of course) just sparked a great Twitter thread on this subject

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