Do you ever pick up a book—and a few pages in you realize you’re not sure what you just read? Your mind has wandered or gone blank, and the words have simply passed by your eyes. Whether it’s a novel or the Bible, short or long, simple or academic, I catch myself doing this... more often than I’d like to admit. Even when a book is interesting or exciting to me, I sometimes struggle to truly interact with what the author is saying. Even with a hot cup of coffee and quiet surroundings I end up passively skimming instead of really reading.
Until recently, the thought of writing in any of my beautiful, clean, crisp books horrified me. I would jot thoughts in a separate notebook or share a quotation on Facebook to remember, but I considered myself a respectful purist when it came to marking the book itself. But after reading an article by Mortimer Adler, ‘How to mark a book’, I started reconsidering if maybe, ‘desecrating’ the pages of my books would actually help me focus, process and retain while reading.
After giving it a few tries, I found that writing in my books as I read was more helpful to me than I’d thought possible. It took a little getting used to, and some trial and error in developing a consistent method that works for me personally, but I can confidently say that it became second nature and increased my ability to process the books I was consuming.
So why and how exactly does marking up my books help me read? First, it causes me to slow down. It changes how I think as I’m reading, and takes time as I pause and mark. Also it causes me to purposefully interact with the content, requiring both a mental and physical response. Last, but certainly not least, marking in books can be a useful tool as we use our reading to disciple others.
If this isn’t something you’ve tried before, you can start by finding a method and copying it, tweaking it as needed. Try a few different approaches to see which fits your learning and reading style best. Or, if you are inventive, develop your own method. That option doesn’t work for someone who is neither inventive or decisive—so I chose the former!
What I ended up with was a hybrid of different methods I liked. I’m sure my system will evolve and I’ll tweak it for years to come, but it’s working for me.
Here’s a brief overview, just for illustration. I underline anything that’s just a couple of lines; one or two sentences or phrases that I want to stand out. For longer passages, I draw a bracket on the side to bring attention to it. I underline a particular sentence within the bracket as well if necessary. I also draw symbols along the side to mark why it’s underlined or bracketed: a question mark for things I’m not sure about or need to follow up on; an exclamation mark for something that’s a brand new idea or surprising; a heart for something that is really beautifully or memorably said, and so on.
The biggest challenge to this system is a borrowed book. I’ve found keeping index cards or a reading journal can be a close second to marking in the book itself. I jot down the page number and similar symbols or notes. This serves well enough for books I won’t own myself, but sometimes I decide the book is significant or helpful enough to have as a resource that I’ll purchase my own copy to mark up to my satisfaction.
Depending on the type of book you’re reading, there will be various amounts of marking you may fill in. In an easy-to-read, well-written book that is full of good tips and new ideas, it may be very easy to underline and star several things per page. Especially in shorter books, it will often be very clear what the main point or conclusion of a paragraph or chapter is. But in more difficult, in-depth books you may find yourself trudging through several pages without really grasping where the argument is going. Or what groundwork you just came out from. With these books, I try and make it a point to slow down and not turn the page until I have marked at least a couple of central points the author is making on each page or in each chapter. This helps prevent me from getting through several chapters without really following what the author is trying to communicate.
Of course, while you’re marking, keep in mind why you are reading the book, or what you hope to get out of it. The examples I gave above are for a book I’m reading for my own benefit. If I was planning to read a book along with someone else or with a group, my notes and marking would be serving an additional purpose. Ironically, using marking as a way to really make a book yours can be a great tool when it comes to making your reading about others. Whether you’re discussing the book as you go or after you’ve completed it, having your notes from along the way provides a great resource for discussion with others. Not all books include discussion points, and even those that do cannot be personalized to individual readers. By marking as you go, you can build your own personalized structure for discussion, learning, and for building up those with whom you are reading.
In his book on the very related topic of reading, Adler says, “Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it—which comes to the same thing—is by writing in it”.1 This has been wonderfully true and helpful for me as I read— both for my sake and others’. I love the parallel he draws with music: “The reason why a great conductor makes notations on his musical scores—marks them up again and again each time he returns to study them—is the reason why you should mark your books”.2 When I return to or refer to a book I’ve thoughtfully written all over, it’s more like revisiting a familiar place. I remember what stood out to me, what I learned and what I shared.
As I mentioned above, we’re reading in order to grow in our understanding of our faith and to disciple others. With this in mind, Adler’s wisdom is helpful: “A great book, rich in ideas and beauty, a book that raises and tries to answer great fundamental questions, demands the most active reading of which you are capable”.3 This active reading isn’t only good for you as the reader, it is good for those around you.
1. Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book, Touchstone, New York, 2014, p. 49.
2. Mortimer Adler, ‘How to mark a book’, The Saturday Review of Literature, 6 July 1941.