Crafty Reading

I read a lot of writing books (as well as other nonfiction).

You shouldn’t read them the way you read fiction.

How to read for information:  Set time aside. Sit away from your computer (don’t read on your computer or in your browser). Have a pen or pencil handy (NOT a highlighter), and either write all over the book, or on Post-It Notes if it doesn’t belong to you. The important thing with studying is not to remember all the details – the memory doesn’t work that way! – but to develop a framework into which you can put some of the most important points and have a way of finding the less important ones. I’m a disorganized gulper of a reader, and at this stage of my life I’m not interested in just getting a vague impression of what a book is about. If I’m spending time with a book, I want to get something out of it or else abandon it.

Read so you don’t have to re-read.

I do not object to defacing books. In fact, you should deface the heck out of a good book.  Write in it.  Draw arrows, and pictures.  Comment.

However, you will be tempted to underline everything. Don’t.* If you find yourself doing that, put your pencil to one side and read several paragraphs without underlining. That’s because you have to follow the main point, not to the details with which the writer is supporting that point.  The details are there to convince you of something. What is the thing you are supposed to believe? Underline that.

Oh, you can put a box around a really superb sentence or even a paragraph or so if you absolutely must. I love cherry-picking quotes for later myself. No, what you want to have by the end of each chapter is a list of the main points being made in that chapter. I can’t do that first time through. If you’re like me, you’ll have to take another pass. I do that by writing in the margin what I think are the most important take-aways from each chunk of the chapter.

And THEN I take notes from my notes. The idea is to boil things down to their absolute minimum. Ideally, I will end up with a page or so for the entire book, if it’s really good. And then I can toss out the book if I want, or keep it handy if I think it’s a good reference.

You see, I really value reading. I value it more than I do books. If I’m going to spend my valuable, limited time on reading, I do not want that time to be wasted. The book, to be useful to me, needs to make it into an easily accessible place in my brain, needs to become part of my understanding of the world, not a separate container of words that sits on my shelf with its pages slowly yellowing and foxing until the whole thing cracks down the spine when I pull it out.

Your experience will be different. I’m obsessive, and I’m preoccupied with really understanding things (that usually results in way more confusion than necessary in the preliminary period of a new knowledge set).

But I repeat:  if you really want to understand something, read it so that you don’t have to read it again. Write all over it.  Transform it.  Make it into a tattoo on your brain.

Next:  I don’t have time to write


*This is why highlighters don’t work. They are too tempting to use, and they don’t require the time, effort, and meaning-making that a pencil or a pen produces. My students would get out their highlighters and go to TOWN, and it never did them any good. It’s possible to use a highlighter effectively, but it usually means re-reading a chapter, because you have to highlight only the most important phrases, and that means you have to know what they are already.
†Most nonfiction books are very organized already. They are divided into parts, which have individual chapters, which make related sets of points, and often go back and forth from assertion to example and back to assertion, and often includes end-of-chapter assignments.  
‡Lord knows, during my literature review, one of the most compelling things I came away with was the understanding that most researchers writing academic papers haven’t actually read half the documents in their lit review, just cherry-picked a point from the summary or from someone else’s publication.
§ You may find that as you are reading a book, the things you underline are things you already know really well.  In that case, put your pen down and glance ahead.  If you don’t see anything new, put the book down.  No, put it in a bag to be donated.  Toss it in the trash.  Make it into a jewelry safe.  If you already know it, you don’t need to read it.

9 thoughts on “Crafty Reading

    1. DMT says:

      I like the idea of another piece of paper. I would lose the piece of paper, though 🙁 I’m the most organized disorganized person in the world).

  1. Jason says:

    I guess part of me is still in the mindset that does not allow drawing in books. Even in four hundred dollar textbooks that I bought for classes, I am shy to write on the pages. Somewhere there is an elementary teacher that instilled this into my psyche, wish I remembered who so I can target my ire. anyways may have to start, in between reading fiction I like a good historical book, but never make notes on the pages where there are passages I like or can relate to other aspects in life. Thank you

    1. DMT says:

      I love Billy Collins’s poem “Marginalia“. He says:

      We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
      and reached for a pen if only to show
      we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
      we pressed a thought into the wayside,
      planted an impression along the verge.

      And I enjoyed a 2014 article from the NYT on the subject.

      1. Jason says:

        I agree 100 percent, just saying it is my own mental barrier. I love opening an old book and reading notes another had left, best part of buying used books. I am just saying I always shy away from doing it myself.

        1. DMT says:

          Oh, yeah, I get that! I had to teach myself to do it when I really actually wanted to learn something myself, because I was so nervous about defacing books.

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