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College Study Hints
How to Prevent Homework From Screwing Up Real Life

How to Mark Books


Ever notice that used textbooks are full of brightly colored bands of transparent ink spread across the pages to highlight what somebody thought was important? In the Old Days the only color available was yellow, so things were important or they weren't. Then came green and orange, and things could come in three levels of importance. Recently markers have turned up in pink and blue ink as well, reflecting the five-color complexity of life in these intellectually challenging times.

Although it is probably possible to date a used book by the kind and variety of the marker colors applied to it, it is rarely possible to figure out just what was important about the passages highlighted. For one thing, the ink tends to bleed through the page and mark both sides. For another, the person who marked the page was a four-ply idiot with bizarre ideas about significance. And finally, as the buyer of the marked book, one doesn't know the code. What does green mean as against pink (aside from showing that the reader had green and pink markers)? Chances are that even the marking reader couldn't have told you after a few days or weeks had passed.

It is satisfying to write "BS" in the margin from time to time, I admit, but it doesn't help a person review the text later.

As far as I can figure out, using colored markers to indicate the important points in a text is one of the Great Losing Strategies of our era. It takes time, makes a mess of the book, and rarely provides much information when you review the book later. Applying colored markers to books is a Snare and a Delusion. Nevertheless I do believe in marking up books as I read them. (My books, I mean. Marking other people's books is very evil. And distinguished theologians have established beyond any question that there is a special dungeon in hell for people who mark library books.)

Here is how I mark books so that the markings are actually useful to me in reviewing the text later:

  1. I always use a pencil. That way I can erase the mark if it turns out to have been stupid and ill-considered. I have lots of stupid and ill-considered reactions to what I read, so being able to erase them is an advantage. (The only negative aspect is that pencil is not very visible in class, so if I want to conduct a discussion about the book without mumbling a lot, I need to overcome my mousiness, use a bold red ball-point, and avoid having stupid and ill-considered opinions. Some days you just can't have any fun.)
  2. An important passage is indicated with a vertical line down the margin. The line down the margin means "This would have been highlighted if I were the sort of person who did that, which I am not." If something is wonderfully, gloriously, extravagantly important, I occasionally even celebrate that event by drawing two lines down the margin. (Yes!)
  3. Definitions are almost always important (and easy to put on exams), so they always count as important; a line with a loop in it identifies the important passage as a definition. I usually circle the expression being defined as well. If the "definition" is really a characterization more than a proper, dictionary-like definition I put a line through the loop.
  4. I have discovered that a word written in the margin can easily identify high points and structural turning points in a text in a way that makes it very fast to review. Here are the marginal words that I use. (In actual fact I use abbreviations and signs and symbols, but they stand for these words.)
  5. Now that I am a professor I sometimes also write "Discuss" (my abbreviation: "Đ") for something to be discussed in class, or even "Exam" (secret symbol).
  6. When an author enumerates things ("There are three reasons to love calcium: first …"), I usually put little numbers in the margin (➀ ➁ ➂).
  7. Often I circle key words in the text so as to help add content to the essentially organizational marginalia. I avoid circling very many, though, since this can get out of hand fast, I have found.
  8. I rarely bother expressing opinions in the margins. It is satisfying to write "BS" in the margin from time to time, I admit, but it doesn't help a person review the text later. ("BS" of course stands for … um … "badly stated.")

This system is ludicrously simple, but it works okay. It forces a person to read analytically, looking for the points the author is trying to make and for the ways in which they are being made. It keeps one's mind on the forest instead of all the trees. Boring material gets interesting; disorganized writing comes out organized; the forgettable becomes memorable. It makes reviewing a chapter or even a whole book a matter of seconds or minutes rather than hours. It even seems to increase reading speed. (It also keeps me awake. Now that I think of it, that may be how it increases reading speed.) There is no problem with the pencil markings bleeding through to the next page. And finally, pencils are cheaper than transparent markers. Try it; you'll like it.

The preceding essay on highlighters and note-taking
is adapted from one originally published under the title
"The Wickedness of Orange Ink" in Warren Briefs, Winter, 1996.

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