Friday, May 3, 2013

The Art of Annotation

In the last year and a half, I've certainly critiqued a lot of books here on My Lady Bibliophile. 75 books, to be exact. Some of the stories and biographies were good, and some of them not--some were hard to tell between the two.

Certainly there's an art to critiquing a book, one that I'm learning for myself and watching others do as well. In my first blog post I described critiquing a book as 'a sort of mental annotation', and in many senses it is. An annotation is simply the act of writing notes in the margins, whether it be an explanation of a particular passage, or pointing out a mistake, or interesting tidbits of trivia that enhance the text.

Perhaps the mark of a truly good book is when an author has tons of notes they would love to put in the margins. The more ability to write notes, the more thought goes into a story or teaching. It shows that an author has lived and breathed their subject for weeks and months, and they have something worthwhile to say on the subject.

But, while some annotations are fun, some are more than irritating. Snarky criticisms and endless nitpicking do nothing to enhance the story, and should be avoided it at all possible.

The Good
The house was asleep. The clock shone out at past midnight. After a fruitless chasing of sleep, I had just finished Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding, and right underneath it lay The Hobbit--that mysterious gate to the world of Middle Earth, which I had heard was so enchanting and soul-sweepingly profound.

Why not?

In this instance, it was not merely The Hobbit that I was balancing under my covers, in valiant attempts to turn the huge pages noiselessly. It was The Hobbit annotated by Douglas A. Anderson, one of the anniversary editions, I believe. In the midst of this strange, and--yes, I'll admit it--rather childlike tale, according to my impression at the time, I fell in love with behind-the-scenes notes for the very first time. Before this, I would dutifully shudder through introductions when absolutely necessary. But now, as I read about thirteen dwarfs having a dinner party, I found myself enchanted with copious notes of what Tolkien thought of different cover illustrations, and how he chose to pluralize the word "elf". Also, this edition included scenes that were later cut out of the revised Hobbit, which alas, do not appear in the edition I own currently. There were no snarky comments, no far-fetched critiques and explanations of Tolkien's plot; simply an attempt to enhance the reader's enjoyment of the story, mistakes and all.  And I think this makes a good point--a story is meant to be entered into. It is not a specimen pinned to a cork board that requires scientific classification.

Evaluation? Certainly. But not nit-picking. More on that in a moment.

The Not-So-Good
Then there's the other kind of evaluation--the kind that leaves you with a headache, and takes all the magic out of your favorite characters. Take Leslie S. Klinger's massive annotations of Sherlock Holmes, presented to the public on the occasion of his 150th birthday.

Most girls pin the medal of Best Hero on Sir Percy Blakeney, but I chose entirely different heroes during that 12-14 stage of hero-worship. After Alan Breck and Davie, I lived and breathed 221b Baker Street, and the Sherlock Holmes/Watson duo.  You name the mystery, I could tell you exactly what it was about. I can still quote the scenes in which the hapless Watson suffers through an awful breakfast due to Holmes' interest in the final installment of a magazine romance. I even listened through all the cheesy old radio shows with the hair tonic commercials, because I enjoyed Holmes so much. (Even though Watson was the best by far of the two.)

I was quite excited to read Klinger's notes, and expected to get a wealth of informative information. No doubt I shall when I have the strength to try again. But for his birthday present, Leslie Klinger, among historical notes and various interesting tidbits, spends a great deal of time pointing out the inaccuracies, typos, scholarly criticisms and points where the plotting could have been improved. What purpose does it serve to try to make post-Reichenbach Holmes out as a fraud in the footnotes? And why must we pick apart the weak points of all of his deductions?

Just for the record, I would like to state that Watson did not have seven wives.

The purpose of an annotation (which is sometimes in the condensed form of a book review) is to build up the story and support the author, not to tear it to shreds.

The Point of It All

Needless to say, annotations aren't of earth-shattering importance. Some of them are good, some aren't, and if you don't like one then it's fairly easy to set the book aside and find a better edition. But as I thought over these experiences, I found a deeper moral in the tale. Namely, I need to be very careful how I criticize a book. It's more than an abstract specimen or solution; it's a window to the soul not only of the author, but of the readers love it. We must be very careful when we choose to make fun of literature or pull it all to pieces. A good joke isn't a problem, even in some cases at the book's expense. That's like laughing when movie continuity gets messed up. (Yes, The Two Towers had its amusing spots on that score.) But when gentle teasing turns into a cynical and obsessive enjoyment of pointing out everything wrong, then we may a problem that goes deeper than surface level evaluation.

Proverbs 16:21 says "The wise in heart are called discerning, and gracious words promote instruction." When it is our duty to point out something wrong in a book--whether it be a moral judgement or poor literary quality, then it behooves us to be gracious in our speech, speaking the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15) When we do not, our readers won't learn from us. They'll be hurt and defensive.

We must not take excessive delight in pointing out error. It is our duty, assuredly, in such cases where it violates Christ, or when we need to call readers to a higher standard of excellence. But we should take delight, wherever we are able, in praising as much good as we can find in the books we read.

That must be why Doug Anderson's worked, and why Leslie Klinger's didn't. Because the former, while not disguising the fallibilities, did not allow them to detract from the story itself. And the latter took a fiendish delight in proving the "greatest consulting detective" wrong on every point possible.

The art of annotation: perhaps there's more to it than I thought.

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. ~Colossians 4:6

Lady Bibliophile

P.S. The poll is up 'til Tuesday--so until then you can cast your vote for the next article series on My Lady Bibliophile! :)


  1. Lady B,
    I agree; your critiquing should never be ungracious or cynical...and nice notes are always so welcome! ;)
    We are thinking of investing in the annotated Hobbit soon, all our copies are well worn and losing covers....
    Love it!!
    P.S. We are working on a very special quiz for you which we might send soon. :D :D

    1. Ooo, you would love the annotated Hobbit! :) I highly recommend that you get yourself a copy. :D

  2. Dear Lady B,
    Great post! I think that sometimes critiquing a book to much is not good. Nit-picking sucks the enjoyment out of the story and leaves you wishing you never had to crituqe books in the first place. Of course, there SHOULD be critiquing, but too much is never a good thing.
    You had some great thoughts! :D *nods* I don't think I've read any books with annotations but I'm sure I'll come across them.

    P.S. Eagerly awaiting which topic wins on the poll. ;)

    1. Dear Sister,
      Thank-you so much! :) I agree; nit-picking sucks the joy out of the story. I'm reminded of Jim Weiss saying something like this in one of his talks--sometimes when a child is so enchanted with the story, as parents it's best not to break that enchantment--it's a balancing act between proper evaluation and just leaving others to live the story. :)

      Love and cuddles,

  3. A very good post, Schuyler, as always! I tend to avoid introductions, index, appendices, etc, like the plague though I always do enjoy the author's notes - and I have read some pretty good introductions and forwards sometimes, especially on spiritual/devotional and biographical works: introductions on literature gets to be far more galling and irritating on most occasions... but since coming across Tolkien's books, I have come to appreciate those appendices and introductions far more (well, I think Tolkien NEEDED them ... oh, on that note, have you read any of Tolkien's personal letters? They are such enjoyable stuff to read!)

    Sherlock Holmes! Ahem, have you ever watched the 1980s BBC TV series adaption of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett? His portrayal of Doyle's character was brilliant and very, very accurate to the books (along with the stories themselves!) Sometimes I had a bone or two to pick with the portrayal of Dr. Watson but it's very good still. You really should check out the series. The new modern adaption with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is great too - in its own way, though there are a few skip-able parts and it is quite hard to get used to a modern version of the iconic detective and his friend...
    anyways, I digress... I so agree with you about literary criticism... sometimes, as your sister mentioned over-nit-picking spoils the pleasure of the novel or movie - I agree, there should be critiquing (especially moral elements), but in a way that is always positive... unless it is really, really, positively, 100% impossible to do this. And so far, I have never read a novel (I have watched a very few movies though) which I hated with such a vehemence that it warranted some really serious negativity :))

    1. Haha, you and I think the same on introductions. :D I *always* skip them with certain authors like Dickens, etc., because they are generally written by someone trying to be politically correct. But when the author of the book writes it, it's generally interesting. I have never read Tolkien's letters, but they are on my list, and I greatly look forward to them!

      Believe it or not, I've never seen any movies of Sherlock Holmes! Funny, I know--but I think I would like the Jeremy Brett ones; I'm going to look them up. As for the new ones--I have never seen those either, but I like the pictures of the Cumberbatch/Freeman team. (Such a perfect pairing!) I heard that the second season had a lot of things to skip--what would you say? Is there a lot of crude language? I cheated and watched a clip from the end of The Reichenbach Fall--very bad of me, I know, but I wanted to see how they did it. :)


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