In Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan, protagonist Tom Townsend defends his refusal to read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park by remarking, “I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction, I can never forget that none of it really happened.” Tom’s opinion was controversial in his friends’ adolescent literary salon, but he may have approached the right idea—reading challenging literature can be more rewarding when you supplement the text itself with criticism, interpretations, or historical insights. While replacing literary classics with criticism may go too far, annotated editions of great books can make for a far richer reading experience. Here are just a few reasons why it’s beneficial to read annotated books.
Let’s begin by referring back to Jane Austen. Though Austen is one of the most popular authors in the English language for her timeless explorations of love and socioeconomic hierarchy, sometimes the journey to her native Edwardian England isn’t quite so easy for everyone to make. Unfamiliar vernacular, customs, and other markers of 18th-century English society can reaffirm the notion that England and America are two nations separated by a common language. Annotations can define arcane or unfamiliar words without sending you to the dictionary, where you still may not find all the context you need. Notes on the page can also come in handy for references to historical events and currents that would be top-of-mind for readers at the time, but not necessarily so for 21st-century Americans, such as the relative luxury of eating fresh grapes at Mr. Darcy’s estate.
Some books don’t just encourage scholarly debate and analysis; they all but require it. Religious texts encourage vigorous scholarship and discussion en route to a more profound grasp of themes and motivations. Reference and study Bibles, fittingly, are some of the most popular annotated books on the market. Reference Bibles aid readers by compiling themes that run across disparate books of the Bible, helping readers better understand key ideas. Study Bibles go one step further, richly annotating the original text with interpretations, arguments, and historical aids.
Decoding the Foreign
The great works of literature are not limited to the English language. English-speaking readers benefit greatly from the translations of French, Russian, and Greek classics, to name but a few. But just as the evolution of the English language and the march of time have made English literature more challenging, translation from a foreign language can further complicate matters. The difficulty of bringing works into English is a third reason why it’s beneficial to read annotated books. When working your way through the densest works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, plentiful explanations of untranslatable idioms and guides to the often-perplexing Russian naming conventions can assist you far beyond a mere translation, making these challenging reads as rewarding as possible.