Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tab Talk

People often talk to me about the tabs on my books (by "tabs" I really mean sticky notes in a variety of sizes, colors, and shapes). It isn't just my friends that talk to me about them, mind you,...but perfect strangers! Sometimes a conversation is started because I'm carrying around a book with colorful little tabs sticking out of the pages. Other times, it is my sandwich baggie filled with highlighters, sticky notes, pencils, and pens that gets a stranger's attention...and the questions begin (usually asked with a chuckle).

While every conversation has always been different and interesting, there is one I remember very well...

(Warning: This is an anecdote. If you'd like to skip to just the informational part about tabbing - or annotating, as most people call it - skip down to WHY TAB?!)

I was on a plane one day, and a businessman sat in the seat next to me. We did the polite smile and nod, as weary travelers often do. I already had a book in my lap, which is universal sign among experienced travelers that says, "Don't worry, I won't bother you. I don't want to talk. I just want to read my book." There was no conversation. He read his paper, and I read my book. 

Not long into the trip, I saw a great quote in the novel. (I was halfway through the book when I got on the plane, so it had already gained a respectable amount of tabs.) I reached into my purse and pulled out my sandwich baggie full of the things I mark my books with. I pulled down my tray and began to mark up the text and place tabs where I wanted them, sometimes writing on the little sticky notes I stuck to the pages. 

"Ummm, excuse me for bothering you," he said, "but I couldn't help but notice your little baggie there." (And, yes, he had that familiar chuckle in his voice I've heard so often when someone is about to ask me about how I read.) I glanced over at the array of goodies spilling out of my baggie onto the tray before I turned and smiled at him, "Yes, what about it?" I asked. "Well, you must be a teacher. I figured you must be teaching that book to...what? High school seniors, maybe? Boy, you must be working on one hell of a hard test for them," he said with a smile and a knowing wink.

I laughed a little and told him that he was partially correct. I admitted that I was a teacher, but that I was reading the book for pleasure. I was marking and tabbing the text because I enjoy it. I also told him that I taught middle school and that Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (the book I was reading) doesn't make the middle school list. It was at this time I returned the wink.

I honestly thought that would be the end of the conversation, pretty much. No, wait. That's not completely true. I've never told someone I'm a middle school teacher without getting their commentary on how horrible my job must be and that they could never teach "those hormonal middle school kids," which is then followed by a "how in the world do you do it?!" After that, though, I expected to settle back down into my book.

I was mistaken.

Now, let me stop right here for a minute. I should tell you that I am a born and raised Southern girl. I have good manners, but I don't have a problem being direct and honest when the occasion calls for it. 

The occasion called for it.

When the gentleman seemed genuinely interested in continuing the conversation about why I read the way I do and why I make so many notes, I decided it was time to be direct and honest. "Sir," I said, "you seem like a really nice man, so I should warn you. You see, I gave you the universal signal that I would not bother you on this trip. I was going to sit here quietly and read for the entire plane ride and leave you to your peace. However, if you wish to pursue this conversation, I can - and will - talk your ear off. I have more to say about reading than you could possibly imagine and not because I am a teacher. I am a good reader who happens to love being a teacher, not a teacher who happens to love being a good reader. Reading came first, and I am passionate about it. So, the choice is yours. Should I go back to my reading? No hard feelings. Or should I stop my reading and talk to you instead?" I must say, I was surprised when he replied, "I would like to know why you love reading so much and why you carry a sandwich bag of those things in your purse. I mean, honestly, what could you need all those tabs for? Yes, I believe I would prefer to hear what you have to say. I'm not sure I could forgive myself if I didn't find out."

I had to smile (for the poor man had no idea what he'd just signed up for), and I said, "Very well. Just don't say I didn't warn you..."


Why do I tab? Well, it isn't because anyone told me I had to, and it isn't something I have always done. I have, though, always written down things I wanted to remember from books or songs. I have always, for as long as I can remember, loved words and loved quotes. 

I suppose the invention of good sticky notes led me away from copying down what I wanted to remember, or quote, and made it easier for me to make notes in the very places I fell in love with the words. As I read more books, and longer books, I began to categorize my tabs by color for easier access to what I wanted to refer back to later.

Most of the time, I don't know what all the categories will be for a particular book until I get into it. I offer these two examples to show my meaning:

Example 1: When I read Stephen King's 11/22/63, I had no doubt I wanted my two standard tabs: vocab (words I don't know) and quotes. As I began to read the book, I added a 'research' tab because I wanted to check out some of the history the book mentioned that I was unaware of. When I found some really interesting things I loved King did as a writer, his writing style, I added the 'writer stuff' tab. Until this book, I had never named a category 'The Amen Corner', but I felt compelled to add one to this book...and the label fit my meaning. :)

By the way, I don't make all my quote tabs in all my books a certain color. Instead, I put a tab guide for the book on the front page. It works fine for my purposes. I have also found that it works just fine for my friends who want to read a book after me because they like my tabs. A friend once told me that it's like having a conversation with me about the book as she reads. My oldest daughter, on the other hand, doesn't like to read a book after I have read and tabbed it. I guess she hears my voice in her head enough as it is. ;)

Example 2: I didn't really know what to expect when I read Jennifer Donnelly's Revolution. It was a book I read for book club, so I started out with the same two standard tabs: vocab and quotes. The French Revolution is the setting for part of the book. Are you wondering why I tabbed this one 'history' instead of 'research'? It's because I wasn't sure, when I started the book, if I would be interested in researching the French Revolution (turns out, I was very interested - good thing I tabbed those references, eh? ;). One of the many pleasant surprises for me in the novel was the many references to music. I was happy to add a 'music' tab to songs mentioned throughout the book. I love when two of my loves, reading and music, come together so well.

I wouldn't want you to think that the only reason I tab is to categorize things for referencing later. The other reason I use them is to have a dialogue with the book. In other words, if I get to a part where I'm confused, I make a note or put a question mark. Sometimes, I like to predict what I think will happen later. Other times, I make a note on something I relate to or want to be sure to share with someone else. Honestly, the list goes on and on. And, contrary to what some people may think, making notes doesn't disrupt my flow of reading. I marinate in books, I don't just read them. 

Now, if you tab - or decide to start tabbing - are yours going to look just like mine? Probably not. Different things appeal to different people in books. Your tabs should be what you want them to be. They don't have to be color-coded. All of mine aren't. It just depends on the book...and my mood. Like I said before, it isn't something I have to do,...it is something I enjoy doing. I do believe, though, that it makes me a better reader. It certainly makes reading more interesting for me, and I always seem to find wonderful gold nuggets (worth making note of) among the treasures I read.

How this works for students: I will tell you this, for students who struggle with their reading, making little notes helps them connect to the text. It takes patience and practice to show them how to do this (especially middle school students), but it is very rewarding for them when they learn how and - most importantly - they become better readers. Last year, I taught a group of girls in an after-school book club how to tab a book we were reading (all of them were self-proclaimed I-don't-like-to-read girls). When we came together twice a week, they would share their tabs, their notes, their ideas about the text. It was a little slow going at first, but once they got the hang of it? It was a beautiful thing, and...it improved both their reading skill and their reading pleasure. I purposely left all the tabs in two of the books they used. I enjoy skimming through it from time to time to remember what they were thinking when they read certain passages. It's like reading the book with them all over again, and it always makes me smile.

One last thing,...if you're wondering if I tab every book I read? I don't. Why would I? Some books I choose just because they are an easy read on a sandy beach when I don't care to think too much. I also enjoy reading collections of short stories from time to time, and I don't tab those very often. On rare occasions, I have found books so close to my heart...I didn't want to make notes. It is as simple, and as complicated, as that. 

As I said, and let me say it one more time, I tab because I love it. I don't do it because I'm a teacher, and it isn't something I was ever taught to do. Perhaps,...just perhaps,...it is simply a part of the genetic make-up of a born bibliophile. ;) 


  1. Yep, you are on my favorite list for now and always. I have a love of reading, but your passion exceeds mine by about a billion. I am thankful that you are an English teacher in middle school, because I know that you have been a blessing and "Game-changer" for Many!! I truly wish you could have taught Dillion. Maybe you will Moriah! ;) I love you and thank you so much for sharing this passion and knowledge with the rest of us!

    1. Thank you, Laura! I really appreciate your encouragement and kind words! I love you, too! :)