Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Why I Write in My Books

Posted by Tony Reinke.

I know some will object, but I write in all my books. I make marginal notations, highlight sentences, and sometimes “x” through an entire page. I cannot imagine I am the only reader of this blog who has no reservations about this practice.

Mortimer Adler, in his classic How to Read a Book (Simon & Schuster 1972), devotes only a few pages to art of writing in a book (pp. 48—52). Adler encouraged it for three reasons. (1) The act keeps you awake and active while reading. (2) If your mind is engaged, it will be naturally spinning off thoughts, which should be captured. (3) By writing thoughts down, you are more likely to remember what you read. Adler encourages readers to note important passages, make cross-references to connect passages to other pages in the book, circle key words and phrases, and write down general thoughts. Adler mentions structural and conceptual notetaking, but only briefly.

My goal in this post is to hear from readers with experience writing in books. You may be one of them, and likely if you’ve read this far in the post you are who I want to hear from. So I figured the best way to do this would be to explain my simple practice and then ask you to explain how and why you write in your books. Here it goes.

Basically, I mark in my books (1) to highlight what I appreciate, (2) to trace progression, and (3) to critique what I don’t appreciate.

Let me explain briefly.

1. Highlighting Highlights. From short phrases to full pages, I identify sections that I find helpful and persuasive. With a highlighter or pen, I mark those sections and will return to copy the quote into a topical database for later reference. I use vertical markings in the margin to highlight these noted excerpts, which comprise about 5-percent of a really good book. Later I will enter these quotes into a simple Excel database.

2. Trace the Progression. My problem with highlighting (#1) is that I too frequently scrape my nose on the tree bark. I’m a detail guy myself and this practice of notating as I read has helped me to pause and consider the author’s big picture development.

For these notations, I fill the white spaces of a book. At the top of the first page of a chapter there is usually 1/3 of a blank page where I jot notes after I read every few pages. Here I can connect the small details of a chapter together into a visual linear progression as I watch the author develop an argument.

My practice is simple: As I progress through the chapter, I jot little summary phrases and connect them with arrows on the opening page. This helps me track how the chapter develops. This is especially helpful when I’m unable to complete a chapter in a single setting.

Naturally, section headings are helpful for following the progression of a chapter. But a number of books—especially Puritans—are long paragraphs of prose smashed tighter than the stones of Solomon’s Temple. In that case it’s necessary to crowbar the text apart with my own section headings written in the margin. It improves readability and comprehension.

And I use those blank pages in the front and back of a book as a personal notebook for all types of notes, questions, and things to remember. The front pages are especially useful when reading a book for review, a good place to collect random general thoughts about the book’s themes and value. I also consider what type of audience will most benefit from the book, and any questions that come to mind that I may ask the author if the opportunity arises.

The back pages I use for topical references. Whenever I read a book on Christian living, I make a note in the back for every reference made to the gospel. I’ll scribble the page number in the back. So in the back of my books you will likely find something like this:

“Gospel: p. 12, 56, 120, 187, 220.”

This little discipline also helps me track reoccurring themes throughout the book.

Like looking through a telescope with one eye and a microscope with the other, writing in a book helps focus my attention on the large-scale development (#2) while I mark helpful stand-alone sentences (#1).

3. Critiquing Lowlights. Reading with pen-in-hand is also important because good readers are critics. And reading with a pen reminds me that I am a critic. Open to new discoveries, yes. But always a critic. Identifying the lowlights in a book is my means of drawing attention to sections or arguments that:

• Appear to be wrong.
• Contradict God’s Word.
• Lack collaborative evidence and substance.
• Lack biblical support.
• Lack elements of persuasion.
• Have been recycled and developed in the book already (business books are infamous for this).
• Lack vigor and consistency (for novels especially).

When I read sections that appear to be wrong I simply make a “?” in the margin or at the top of the page. When I read sections that I disagree with and can prove to be incorrect, I unsheathe the pen and start x-ing pages. At times I cross out an entire page when I disagree.

So that’s a brief description of why and how I mark in my books.

How do you do it? Why do you do it?

Please explain your process in the comments.