For my super-richly annotated text, I’ve decided to do a close reading of Langston Hughes’ poem “Life is Fine.” I read this poem in the 9th grade and had to present it to my class. I was told by my teacher at the time that I didn’t seem to grasp the underlying theme of the poem. It has since been 10 years, and I think I’m now better equipped to tackle this poem. I also chose to annotate a poem, rather than a short story or other type of text, because I think that the multiple-interpretations of poetry will make it easier to create a wide range of annotations for the text. I figure that choosing an older piece of literature, as opposed to a modern piece, would be better for me because I assume that an older text will lend itself to more potential annotations about historical context. Of course, at this point I’m making assumptions about the difficulty of the text. I could be fooling myself into thinking that choosing an old classic poem will be easier and more fun to annotate than a newer one when the opposite might be true. However this assignment turns out, I’m open to a challenge.
Annotations can be a lifesaving resource. They can reveal details about a text/author that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, and they can provide the reader with a more informed perspective to tackle a text. Conversely, annotations can also distract and move away from the purpose/meaning of a text. I found the annotations for “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to be a double-edged sword.
I first read the version of the short story without annotations. This was the best way to read it, simply because it is just me and the text. There are no annotations, external sources, or outside influences to manipulate my understanding or opinion of the story (which I found incredibly boring and frustrating for the record). After my first read through, I glanced at the Slate-annotated version of the story. This version had well-written and informative annotations, and I liked how they were organized into categories like history, economics, philosophy, commentary etc. Andrew Kahn (the annotator) did a good job of giving new contexts for understanding the story. For example, one annotation explains Melville’s reference of John Jacob Astor, a business man during Melville’s time. When I read it on my own, the name meant nothing to me and I didn’t really think much of it. The annotation explains how the use of Astor’s name adds a layer of protest to the story because as Kahn explains, Astor was well known for being a staunch capitalist and for monopolizing New York real estate. This information gives me clues as to what the point of the short story is, which I found unclear when I read the version without annotations.
I thought that the annotations in the Genius version of the short story were too distracting to focus on. Almost every line during the introduction is annotated, and stopping to read each annotation felt very stilted and took away from the flow of the narrative. The annotations were also a bit too informative. Some annotations were extremely dense and simply mentioned the significance of a single word.
After this exercise, I’ve learned some tips for improving my own annotations. First, I’m going to use the category system that the Slate.com version used. Thinking about a category for an annotation before you actually write it will help determine the purpose of the annotation, which is something that I need to work on. I used to think of annotations as being just stream-of-conciousness, but it is critical for both my understanding of a text that I write annotations with a specific reason in mind (i.e. “What does this do/how does this complicate my understanding of the text?)