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?