Whether you’re the kind of book-lover who never leaves the house without her e-reader, or an unrelenting defender of good ol’ fashioned paper and ink, I think we can all agree that there are a least some books that have to be read in print copy. Sure, I’ll cop to being a print-books-til’-I-die kind of gal, anyway, but in this case, I’m talking specifically about books that are just begging for you to scribble all of your deepest and most profound literary revelations into their margins. And I don’t care how advanced your e-reader might be, digital margin musings are JUST NOT THE SAME. Not even close.
Sometimes, a book really strikes a personal chord: “Hey, this writer sounds just like me!” or is simply so confusing you need to chart everything that’s going on in that one-and-a-half inch white space surrounding the text, perfect for all your note-taking needs. Or maybe, you just really, really need to underline everything a writer is saying (I’m talking to you here, Brené Brown.) In my opinion, margin notes are basically a conversation between reader and writer — and there are many conversations I’ve wanted to share with writers over the years.
Here are 10 books that you just have to read in print copy, because, hey, rereading your margin notes in a few years might be just as interesting as rereading the book.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
This book will leave you feeling like writer Rainer Maria Rilke pretty much knew everything there was to know about life — and in particular, about the life of an artist. Letters to a Young Poet is just that — letters to a student who submitted writing to Rilke for critique. Far beyond an assessment of the young poet's writing, however, Rilke responded with advice about life and love, poetic pursuits, and personal values. This collection of those letters is so gorgeously written, and filled with wisdom for readers of any age or creative endeavor, that you'll definitely want to read it with a pen in hand. And maybe a highlighter. And also some Post-it notes.
Dear Life by Alice Munro
The 2013 Nobel Prize winning Dear Life is a short story collection in two parts — the first is a series of stories about people who are unknowingly reaching a crossroads in their life. Munro captures her characters in moments of decision-making (or lack thereof) when they find themselves transitioning from one life-defining possibility to another. Dear Life explores the transforming power of moments both large and small, of actions deliberate and unconscious, and will make you think about the power a single decision can have in changing your life.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking is, at its core, a meditation on love and marriage, life, and death, and what it means for an utterly devastated woman to survive the two greatest losses possible, in one lifetime. From the writer famously quoted as saying: “I don't know what I think until I write it down,” this memoir is Didion discovering just that: what she thinks, how her life has changed, and which of her beliefs about life and love hold true through the wake of tragedy. You'll be filling the margins with reflections about the relationships in your own life in no time.
Clo ud Atlas by David Mitchell
I think you can read this book chronologically, backwards, inside out, and shuffled like a deck of cards, and still get a story just as compelling (and yes, confusing) each time. Starting in the 19th century, and traveling to a post-apocalyptic world before beginning again in prehistory, Cloud Atlas traverses time and space like few other novels do. Keep your pen handy and your margins organized, because the connective tissues throughout this novel are often so subtle you'll want to take careful note of them.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
If you haven't read Bad Feminist yet, stop what you're doing and start reading it immediately. Seriously, go now. Essayist Roxane Gay's writing is candid, hilarious, and poignant, and bares a little more of the writer herself in each essay. This collection was like having a conversation with my best girlfriends (or, rather, someone who I sometimes wish was my best girlfriend) who has strong beliefs regarding a woman's inherent rights and freedoms, but are still working on figuring out their messy, imperfect lives, too. Gay is a writer with some hard-won perspectives, and you'll definitely want to hear her out.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Whether you love, hate, or don't understand in the least, the philosophies of Ayn Rand, she is usually giving you a lecture, and you'll probably finding yourself wanting to respond — aka taking margin notes. Atlas Shrugged is a philosophical dissertation that reads like an action thriller, filled with characters who chose their finest hours in which to change the directions of their lives, usually not for the better.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
Though a unique specificity of characters and settings, the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank dig deeply into universal themes of fear, love, trust, the struggle to make peace with the past, and loss. From the title story, in which two couples find themselves asking one another the impossible question, “Would you risk your life for me?", to a haunting tale of a murder that occurs at summer camp, each of the stories in this eight story collection offer moments of hilarity and horror, and will ask you to sit with some pretty tough questions of your own.
Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere by André Aciman
For anyone who has had to leave a place they love, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere is a must-read. This collection of essays reads like a love song to locales like Paris and New York, Alexandria and Rome, Tuscany and Barcelona, and more — places Aciman explores with such intimacy, you'll feel like you're walking alongside him, closely observing the pattern of cracks in the terra cotta pot on the windowsill of the third house on the north side of the street. Aciman's writing is gorgeous, and as someone who has called many cities in this world her home, before having to leave "home" behind, it felt like Aciman was reading my own thoughts.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
This step-by-step guide on how to live a writer's life is so margin-note-worthy your margin notes will have their own margin notes. In my opinion, the advice and wisdom shared in Bird by Bird is so universal, even if you haven't embarked upon a writing life of your own, there are tons of literary gems here for you to live by as well. I mean, after all, writing a book is kind of like writing a mini-life, right?
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
This is a doozy of a novel, with its own vocabulary of merged languages, cameo appearances from actual historical and literary figures, and cities that are so personified as to take on the role of a character themselves. I don't know anyone who is well-read enough to pick up on all the references, metaphors, and folk lore that James Joyce utilizes in Finnegans Wake (and I know a lot of readers), so definitely dive into this one with a stack of encyclopedias and a few well-sharpened pencils by your side.