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Leave Your Books Worse Than You Found Them
(and thereby, make them better) - On Reading Well - Part V
A couple of weeks ago my wife received a book she’d asked for from her parents, it was gift-wrapped, kindly given, and heartily received. After she’d opened the book it transpired that whilst her parents had bought a new copy, and a second-hand one had been sent in its place. They apologised profusely, but Anna, flicking through the pages, found that what she had received wasn’t a lesser gift, but a greater one. The book was necessary for her counselling course, and so she’d have to comb through it in detail, but upon seeing highlights, margin notes, and underlined passages, Anna found out that some of the work had already been done for her! The book is sitting on her desk now, messy, rugged, and priceless. Someone left that book worse than they found it, and as a result, it was a joy to receive.
Here’s what I want you to do; find yourself a book and a pen—or multiple pens if you’re feeling adventurous. If you absolutely do not want to mark up any of the books you have at hand, then you have my full permission to print off this article and then make notes on it, highlight words, underline passages, agree or disagree, and such the like all over those pages.
It’s likely that in the past few days or weeks, you’ve decided to read more, read specific books, or perhaps even read for the first time in a long time, and while I’ve given practical advice on reading well in the past—this is part V of the series, after all—this week I want to encourage you to do something wild:
Make your books better, by making them messy.
Perhaps it says something about me that I can call reading in any context “wild” with a straight face, but I’ve spoken with so many people who—when I suggest they write in or mark up books—look at me incredulously as though I’ve asked them to commit some kind of crime. To be clear, I am not under any circumstances asking you to write in anyone else’s books, but your books, they’re all fair game.
Attack the Book
Whether you’ve picked up the Gruffalo or Calvin’s Institutes, let’s start simple. Go to the first page and write your name somewhere. You’ve just broken the first barrier, there’s no turning back now. You’ve also made this book your own.
To be clear, I want you to have fun with this; this should not turn into another chore to add to the list when you’re reading. If you find it difficult to sit down and read, let this reinvent the way you look at reading. For some of you, you might assume that underlining, highlighting, and making notes in books or Bibles isn’t for you because you’re thinking “Isn’t that just a way of showing off how great a reader you are?” I’ve seen so many photos on Social Media in which ‘influencers’ show their fully marked-up Bibles, which look outstanding, but when you check the notes they’ve written, it’s total gibberish.
Marking up books isn’t about showing them off to others, it’s about gleaning more from the texts you read, both fiction and non-fiction.
The second thing I want you to do is to write down three questions you want to be answered by the time you’ve finished this book. I’ve written more extensively about how to go about formulating these questions here, but for now, just write something simple.
Finally, read the first chapter, or the introduction, and look out for three things:
One quote you’d like to remember - Put quotation marks around it
Something that surprised you - Underline it
A word you either don’t know, or you’d like to use more often - Highlight it or draw a box around it
Imagine that you not only remembered that quote, but also looked out for more information about that point that surprised you throughout the rest of the book, and used that word more regularly in your general speech over the few weeks. Would that alone be more than you usually get out of a chapter of a book? When I ask people to describe to me what they gained from a book they finished reading even as recently as a few weeks prior, often it takes an awfully long time for them to return an answer.
I’m not saying that by making these three notations you will see an immediate change in your reading, but what you do when you mark up your books is like painting an X on a map. Whilst the map has inherent value, that X transforms it into a treasure map; created so you can return and find that treasure again and with ease.
There and Back Again
Whilst this article might seem light on advice, that is by design. Having claimed the book as your property, written out questions you’d like answered and then begun to find sentences, passages, and words which stand out to you, it should be easy to repeat that process throughout the book you have in your hands; and indeed for the many others which follow it. I could tell you all about using such and such symbol for Christological references, and a Roman numeral every time you see a reference to a bird, or whatever but I’m convinced that simplicity is better. Whilst over time I’m sure you’ll pick up your own habits, and you’ll create your own symbols and such, for now, just have fun and mark down what interests you, the rest will follow.
My only other piece of advice is this—come back to what you’ve highlighted at least once.
Once you’ve finished reading the book, flick through the pages and rediscover what interested you. You could post one on Twitter, or write it in your journal. You could put it into a Word document and print it off to stick above your computer at work. Whatever it might be, just take the time to recap.
If you do, the likelihood is that the next time you’re asked the question, “so what did you like about the book?” you’ll know at least one way to answer.
Grace and Peace,
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