When it comes to writing in books, I have no fear. I litter books with my indecipherable scribbles for three specific reasons:
1. To highlight what I appreciate.
2. To notate content progression.
3. To critique what I don’t appreciate.
Let me explain each of these specifically.
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 so that I can I return to copy the quote into a database for later reference. A while back I posted more detail about how to organize these quotes (here and here).
My process is pretty intuitive, so I won’t develop this much here.
2. Notating 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 page or so. 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 is developed.
Naturally, section headings are helpful for following the progression of the book. 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. For example, whenever I read a book on Christian living, I make a note in the back for every reference made to the gospel. Each time I find a specific reference 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.”
And this little discipline also helps me track any number of themes throughout a book, not just the gospel. What does this book say about sin? Justification? Sanctification? The local church? As we will see next time (tip #3) first determining these categories is very important to healthy, critical reading.
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) as 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.
Two clarifiers here. First, when I say “critical,” I mean a state of humble evaluation, not a state of prideful negation. Next, let me say that each of our hearts struggle with sin in different ways. Some of us find it easy to thrash books with the scissors of criticism, but resist being chiseled ourselves by wise books. This is pride. Some of us will find it easy to praise good books, but difficult to criticize specific thoughts. We will lift the thoughts of others without critique and discernment. This is laziness.
My struggle is with laziness. And so I started writing in my books to confront this tendency.
Identifying the lowlights in a book is my means of drawing attention to sections or arguments that:
- Appear to be wrong.
- I know to be false and can prove to be incorrect.
- What I think lacks collaborative evidence and substance.
- What lacks biblical support.
- What portions of a book lack elements of persuasion.
- What has been recycled and developed in the book already (business books are infamous for this).
- What lacks 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.
G.K. Chesterton has felt the sword on a few occasions. Chesterton is one of my favorite writers, but when he starts spewing off disdain for John Calvin I mute his mutiny with a black line.
You may be gasping that I would draw a line across a page, but please try this at least once. Unsheathe a Sharpie and, in a swift Zorro-like move, x out an entire page.
This practice is significant and important. This x-ing out discipline is important because that dark line reminds us that our books exist to serve us and our learning and our priorities. We, the readers, do not exist to gulp down the book’s entire content.
Only one book (Scripture) is inherently above x-ing. The rest are not.
Now please don’t think that I’m suggesting you read only what is easy and comfortable. Read what will stretch your mind. Read what you will disagree with. But make sure as you read with a pen in hand.
Books as Roof or Foundation?
Or take this building analogy. Books should lay the foundation for our thoughts, not serve as the roof—or cap—for our thoughts. We should think further beyond what we read (foundation). Not under, and limited to, what we read (roof).
Books help us develop and refine our own thoughts. Yet my lazy temptation is to live in the fragmented world of borrowed thoughts. Interacting with the author’s thoughts—by highlighting, notating, and critiquing—helps us develop our own thoughts, brick by brick.
I find this especially true for preachers in their use of books and commentaries. I can speak from personal experience that too frequently commentaries and books became a roof over a sermon, providing a cap for what can be said, rather than a properly laid foundation for which a sermon is constructed. As I look back, I have noticed that when I was quoting other’s words most frequently from books and commentaries, these were the periods where I was most commonly borrowing thoughts rather than building from them.
I think C.H. Spurgeon was a master of this. Just consider his wide familiarity with the Puritans, having read Owen and Brooks and Bunyan since childhood. Yet if you read his sermons you’ll notice just how few direct quotations he used in the pulpit. Spurgeon said a man who does not use the thoughts of others proves he has no thoughts of his own. He was not talking about the lazy copy-and-paste lifting of quotes, but reminding us that books help develop our own thoughts.
When I fall into the tendency of simply lifting quotes from other books without developing my own thoughts, I’m confusing the fundamental purpose of my books.
Reading with pen-in-hand is one of the most crucial and fundamental tips for reading effectively and efficiently. This discipline reminds me that books are tools, raw materials, and a foundation. It keeps books in their proper place.
With a pen, I am positioned to highlight what I appreciate, to notate content progression, and to critique what I don’t appreciate.