How To Read a Book

I read a book in a rather unusual way, at least when compared to most readers that I know and they are a dwindling number, indeed. Over the years, I have changed the routine a little and explored its implications in a recently published book, In the Country of Books. I’d like to tell you about it.

My comments will not be of the sort written by Harold Bloom, who I greatly admire, in his memorable volume How to Read a Book and Why, especially his remarks in the first chapter prior to his review and analysis of some well known works of literature. Instead, I want to describe the practice I employ in reading any printed matter, fiction, non-fiction, essay, or article.

When I come across a passage that seems memorable in some respect, I put a little mark in the margin or enclose the passage in parentheses. Then I write down on the end page of the document its page number. I do this for every one of the passages I have marked in this way.

When I have completed reading the material, I type each passage in a Word document on my computer, listed under the name of the author, title of the work and it source if it is from a periodical. These passages develop cumulatively over the year in, for example, the Passages I am starting to collect for 2009.

At the end of the year, I review the collection, correct any errors, and make a printed copy. Following this, I add the yearly collection to the growing hard copy volume and now electronic version that I have been compiling for many years.

From time to time I review the passages in particular books and cite them in something I am writing or, as in years past, my lectures to students. I also annotate some when I want to explore the ideas or issues they have led me to.

As a case in point, I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story of Success. I marked a goodly number of passages in this book, with additional notes to myself like “Look closely at this claim.” Most of the passages I marked in this volume were factual (or presumed factual) statements that Gladwell made about the individuals and conditions that gave rise to their extraordinary achievements.

Many were helpful to me in organizing a discussion with other readers of Outliers.
And when I write something about a book that I only dimly recall, the passages that I recorded help me to remember its contents and details about the theme I want to consider.

Doing all this has changed the nature of my reading experiences. More often than not reading tends to be a fairly passive process. We move rapidly from sentence to sentence, rarely stopping to mull over any single one. Marking those that seem notable for one reason or another slows reading down. It transforms it from a page turning exercise into an occasion to think further about the material. Rarely do we stop to think twice about a passage, or make note of it so that we can react to it sometime later. In my view, this is the real advantage of collecting notable passages. It deepens the reading experience, turns it into an engagement with issues, and a true educational experience.

Students often report that one of the greatest hurdles they face in getting started on their writing assignments is finding ideas to write about. Compiling a collection of topics and themes while they are reading might be valuable tool in overcoming this problem. A notebook in which they collect notable passages from the materials they read could easily be drawn upon for writing assignments and might also serve as a catalyst in developing ideas of their own. At least, this is the way it has worked for me.