How to Get More from Your Reading, Part 1: Write in Your Books

Lately, I’ve had a few people ask for my advice about how to read more deeply, to get more out of their reading.  Although this is a skill that I’m still developing in my own life, I’m happy to share what helpful practices I’ve picked up along the way.

And it looks like this is going to take a few posts to cover.  Today, I’ll tackle the most important piece of advice:

#1 Write in your books

I’ve mentioned this before.  It’s no coincidence that I’ve titled my blog “Writing in the Margins.” I learned this trick in college and have never looked back.  And my students get a lecture on the first day of class about why they should forget about the hit they’ll take when re-selling their books and write in them with abandon.

Book reading is an interactive affair, or at least, it should be.  We’re not passive receptacles of knowledge, just getting our brains “filled” with whatever factoids we come upon.  Anyone who has studied memory or brain structure will tell you that when you open up a brain, you don’t see a big bucket, waiting to be filled. You see a complex system of connections.  To plug in information, you need to integrate it, make connections to what you already know.  And one of the best ways to do this while reading is to use your pen or pencil to prompt connections and responses in the margins.

When you commit to writing in the margins, you commit to calling out lies and bad arguments.  You have the power of the pen before you, to answer back, fully engaging the ideas set before you, not accepting them without question.   Writing in the margins teaches you to be a discerning reader, one who doesn’t accept everything at face value and knows what information, in the end, is worthwhile to retain and embrace.

Finally, writing in the margins allows you a quick overview of the book, when you flip through it later.  Your notes will guide you through the important points. They will also re-start the conversation you began during your first read.  You can dive back in at any time, right where you left off, without having to call to mind where you previously stood on all the issues presented. And don’t forget the value your own notes have when you loan your books to others.  They join you in the discussion and benefit from the mental heavy lifting you’ve already performed.

And don’t think this only applies to nonfiction.  Fiction presents arguments and ideas, just as much as nonfiction, but they tend to be harder to spot.  All the more reason for you to call out those ideologies and agendas, right there in the margins. 

There are a few exceptions to the rule that I should point out.  Don’t write in your library books.  In the anonymous library lending system, patrons don’t know who read the book before them, so the notes don’t necessarily come from a trustworthy, respectable source.  In the library world, writing in books is a way of defacing them.  And I agree, these books should remain free from our commentary, even if we think it’s brilliant.  I check out a lot of books from the library, though, and to engage with them fully, I’ll often take notes on a separate piece of paper or purchase my own copy, if it looks like I’ll need to use a lot of marginalia. 

And when I borrow books from friends, I don’t tend to write in them unless I’ve been granted permission to do so. Personally, I have a fairly open policy on writing in most of my books, when I loan them out.  But I do have a few exceptions, so it’s worth asking.  Some books are valuable editions that I’d like to keep pristine.  Others are lending copies because my notes in my personal copies are either for my eyes only or are going to interfere with the next person’s experience of the book (I have an annoying habit of spoiling endings, etc.).

What about you, do you write in your books? If so, how and when do you do it? Anybody completely against writing in one’s books?

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Personally, I have always felt (and I stress the feeling, non-reasoning, part of this) that it is near sacrilege to write in a book. Apart from occasional instances of correcting errors in the printed text, I have hardly ever done it. When studying, however, I have made use of various forms of post-it relatives, e.g. to mark important pages, add a temporary comment, or similar.

    At the same time, I have a strong tendency to read something, find an interesting point/thought/observation, and just think about it for a while—often leaving me spending more time thinking than reading when I have a book open. (These thoughts almost invariably come back on a second reading, even without additional prompts.)

    AL: Thanks for the comment Michael. I find it interesting that you’ll correct errors in the text, which I’m assuming you mean are typos and mispellings, general grammar errors. But you don’t put errors in logic at the same level. I think they’re more worthy of correction!

    • No, I was referring more to errors in numbers and similar smaller factual errors in non-fiction and, in particular, texts used in university courses. Some of these may indeed be typos; but they are also often outright errors, incorrect transcriptions, lapses of memory, whatnot, on the part of the author; sometimes a claim was once believed to be true, but science now thinks differently; etc. The rationale is simply that there is no guarantee that I will remember that a certain statement was an error (let alone what the correct statement would be) on a later reading.

      Correcting errors in logic, OTOH, would be disproportionally much work, may be hard to do in the space available—and would bring little benefit to me, because errors in logic tend to be easy to spot and remember. (Speaking for myself—others may benefit more.)

      Correcting actual errors of language would be a warning sign of OCD or another complication 😉

      AL: You’d be surprised how many OCD people there are out there. Most of the writing I get in library books is people correcting grammar and typos.

  2. Like you, I have underlined and written in my books since college, fiction or nonfiction. My Bibles look like a kindergarten child has played in them with a pen and marker.

    AL: I have a hard time switching to a new Bible because I miss all my notes in the old one. Always a dilemma.

  3. I love, love, love having a book that has margin notes! Passing a book between friends that write in the margin is just plain wonderful; it is amazing how much more you get out of the book when it passes back again with new notes added over time.

    I should add that all notes should be written in pencil to avoid ink acid from etching through the pages over time.

    One of the first books that we had to read in library school was “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler.
    Have you read it Amy? Do you tell your students about it?

    AL: I’m sure we’d enjoy sharing books! I did forget to mention the pen part, which you’ve been kind enough to share with me before. Ever since you said it, I’ve been a dedicated pencil margin writer. I prefer a mechanical one, something about the clicking that I find purposeful.

    I believe I have encountered Adler’s book, but it’s been a long time. I’ll request it again from the library, for a refresher. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of different texts on how to read and have adopted many strategies from them. I do find that I don’t always agree with the steps different readers advocate for getting the most out of their reading. But I do glean a few tips from all of them. Goes to show that not everyone will find all my tips helpful either. Reading is a highly personal experience.

  4. PS: Re your Twitter feed. LOC is now archiving Twitter.
    I just posted about it. What do you think about that concept?

    AL: I saw that in the news yesterday and remarked to Dan that it seemed very big brotherish. I can imagine people’s words coming back to haunt them down the world, if the government decides to point fingers. Yes, it’s public record, but there’s a purposefulness in archiving it that also means they’ll want to access it some time. My question is, why, and what good could come of it?

  5. My guess is that the LOC plans to make the collection available to the medical community. Instead of needing a doctor to put surgical patients under, patients will be subjected to hearing and seeing the Tweets. The Tweets are bound to be a “miracle” cure for consciousness, and there will be no woozie side affects afterwards. Think of the money the government health care program will save with this plan!


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