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How I Read When Researching a Book

The Reading Writer

As a writer I’m required to read lots of books, especially when ramping up a new project, as I am now. The picture above, for example, shows the books I’ve purchased only in the past two days.

I’ve already finished one of them.

My approach to the books I process in my professional life is quite different than my approach to the books I savor in my personal life. The former requires the ruthlessly efficient extraction of key ideas and citations, while the latter unfolds as a slower, more romantic endeavor.

I thought it might be interesting to briefly reveal the method I’ve honed over the years for my professional reading. It’s simple, and the basics should sound familiar to any serious nonfiction reader, but it has served me well.

Here’s the strategy:

  • I read with pencil in hand. Recently I’ve been using Ticonderoga #2 soft lead pencils as their footprint on the page is pleasingly gentle. But the writing implement doesn’t really matter, and I’ll fall back on a brutish ballpoint Bic if that’s all that happens to be available.
  • When I find a passage I want to remember, or an allusion or citation I might need, or a stylistic approach that catches my attention: I mark it in the margin.
  • Sometimes I scribble a few notations if I want to ossify a non-obvious observation or insight about what I’m marking.
  • Then — and this is the key optimization — I cross the corner of the page with a clear line.

Here, for example, is a recently read page from Michael Harris’s book Solitude (which, interestingly enough, is different than Anthony Storr’s 1988 classic of the same title which I just acquired today). Notice the mark in the upper right corner that indicates a few interesting citations below have been identified for potential further review:

Here’s another example from Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human. Once again, a mark in the corner identifies the page as relevant, and a scratched line below highlights a passage that captures an idea useful to my purposes:

The key to my system is the pencil mark in the page corner. This allows me later to quickly leaf through a book and immediately identify the small but crucial subset of pages that contain passages that relate to whatever project I happen to be working on.

My copy of Scott’s book, for example, has around 30 pages marked (I just counted). It will take me less than 10 minutes to review in totality the elements of this treatise that are potentially relevant.

(To emphasize the obvious, this doesn’t mean that Scott’s book only contained 30 pages that interested me: it’s a complicated and interesting work of literary techno-social criticism — which came close to winning the Samuel Johnson Prize two years ago — that I found thought provoking throughout. These are just the number of pages that happened to be relevant to what I’m working on at the moment.)

When it comes to my research process, this is about as complicated as it gets — at least with repect to how I process relevant books. As I work on a new writing project, a growing number of volumes fill the shelf next to my desk, each marred with intentional pencil scratches. When I think I need a particular source, I pull it from the shelf and after a brief review of my ad hoc annotations find myself fully engaged with what it has to offer.

Simple. But effective.

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