Some of you got chills as you read that headline, I know. You hate the idea of writing in books. You want to keep them pristine. You try never to crack the spine, I bet. (I say this as someone who used to try to avoid this, so I’m not making fun.) I get it. I really do. But you know what? You might not like it, it’s true:
You really should mark up your books.
Why? Because reading is not a passive activity. Your mind should be fully engaged, even when you’re reading silly fluff. (This is especially important for all us writer types.)
When I read a book, I almost always have a pen or pencil handy. When I read, whether for enjoyment, review, or study, I try to do this. I want to call attention to ideas that intrigue me. I want to mark paragraphs that provoke some sort of reaction. And if I want to really engage and think through the book’s arguments, I need to write notes in the margins.
The most important reason to mark up your books
Let me give you an example. A few years later, I was reading a terrible book. (Like schismatic and blasphemous terrible.) As I read this thing, I wrote furiously.1 I engaged with what I was reading, underlining like a madman, connecting thoughts, adding a few “come ons”, and other such statements. (There were one or two I had to scribble out lest anyone read some, shall we say, more “colorful” commentary.)
But the best thing about it was asking questions of the author. Sure, I realize he couldn’t answer me, but it was still important. Asking questions of the author in the book, near the text allowed me to follow his logic. I needed to work through the conclusions he was trying to make, and the best place was right there on the page with his text. (The book, in case you were wondering, is this one.)
And that is really the most important reason to make a mess of your books—or rather, the most important reason I do it: it helps me think clearly about what I’m reading, rather than letting it wash over me. My retention improves, my appreciation grows and my engagement increases dramatically.
I realize not everyone is a fan of actually writing or underlining in their books. And if you’re one who fits that description, here’s what I would encourage. Read with a notebook handy. Write down the quotes that get your attention. Write down the arguments you find challenging or thought-provoking. Argue with the author in your notes.
But regardless of where you’re doing it, engage with what you’re reading. You’ll be a better reader for it.