A highlighter kind of guy

I have been reading quite a bit recently about reading. If that sounds vaguely odd, it’s not meant to, but I have been wondering how to get the most out of the books that I read, how to absorb more and recall more and benefit more. This is partly born out of a desire to learn how to study after embarking on an MA course in Missional Leadership here in Ipswich, but also because of a desire to recall more of the great books I am discovering by authors such as John Piper, Jerry Bridges and others.

C J Mahaney has had some interesting recent interviews on his blog with Christian leaders in the US and has asked all of them “When you finish a book, what system have you developed in order to remember and reference that book in the future?”  Some people rely on memory, other recommend starting a “quote file”.

John Piper has a frighteningly efficient way of indexing his books – no less than you would expect from someone as prolific in his writing and sermons.

I index books as I read them, by writing short notes in the front of the book with page numbers beside them. In a good book there may be over a hundred such notes.

Tim Challies has written extensively on this just recently in his excellent blog, and here is his synopsis of how he reads a book.

I begin by giving the book a quick scan, hoping to understand what it is about, what the author is going to attempt to prove and how he is going to set about this task. I read the back cover and the endorsements. I skim over the table of contents and look through the end notes and bibliography. Having done that, I tend to linger a little bit over the introductory chapter(s), since I find this to be the most important section in the book. It generally lays out the basic framework of the author’s argument and lets me know what he is arguing against. I read with a pencil in hand (I buy those clickable Bic pencils by the box) and highlight liberally. I also tend to jot short notes and questions in the margins or at the end of chapters. Points that are important to the author’s argument tend to receive a *, and points that are exceedingly important receive a bigger, bolder *. I often also make a list of important page numbers and questions on the inside front cover of the book. In some cases I’ll make two or three columns of page numbers. By doing all of this, I am making the book my own and not just reading it, but actually interacting with it as I go. This is tremendously helpful for both understanding and retention.

All this sounds a bit scary to me – like the approach of someone who has graduated with a PhD from the University of Discipline. As someone who failed his ‘O’-level in that department I think my favourite approach is the one from Thabiti Anyabwile when asked about referencing:

Does highlighting count? I highlight a book and write comments in the margin. I’ve tried to start a quote file. And I’ve written personal indexes in the back of a book. But I don’t find that those help me reference a book in the future. I’m just a highlighter kind of guy. And it’s fun for me because I re-read the section with new eyes and distance sometimes. So, I glean new things, or I go away thinking, “Why in the world did I highlight that?” So it becomes a fun interaction between my past and future.

This resonates with me. I have a number of books which are very well highlighted. And the highlighting is revealing, not least for what I was feeling and thinking and struggling with at the time. For that reason I am sometimes reluctant to lend a book I have highlighted – it reveals more of me than is comfortable.

In summary then, I might try some of these other approaches, but, without admitting defeat before I start, I think I’m definitely a highlighter kind of guy. I hope that works.


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