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Reading with a pencil (austinkleon.com)
139 points by ingve 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 83 comments

I like the reminder that this is a thing and it can/should be done.

I grew up reading my dad's leftover WWII non-fiction, in which he typically corrected the authors with little gems like "NO!!! A6M2 Zero used 20mm cannon and .303, NOT .50 cal. SLOPPY."

Since then I've realized that these scribblings can be useful for a variety of things, like:

- Things to remember for later: "Amazing quote." Then it's very easy to thumb through and find that stuff later. For large tomes like scripture it can help to use expanded notation schemes, like highlighters of various colors, symbols representing topics, and so on. If you stick with "amazing quote" while reading the NT or the Quran or something else for the first time, you will quickly get lost when trying to find that one quote.

- Frustrations, as above: "WHY is the author writing like this? This entire chapter is fluff!"

- Questions: "Who could have committed this crime???" Sometimes just getting the information out of one's own head allows the question to settle in, or to be reviewed and not forgotten later.

- Things to research. I use a little icon like ->O for that, indicating directional attention toward an object. For example, the book refers to another book, or a website, and I want to follow up and learn about it.

- Building a mental model / framework in order to leverage what the book is saying: "This is step 1 of the author's model for identifying tropospheric propagation conditions, and step 2 seems to be given on page 42."

Going beyond marginalia, I have also kept lots of book logs, where I reference a page number and date and get my thoughts onto paper as I read. A log format has its downsides, one of which is that it does not lend itself easily to the expression and design of formal mental models _in one place_. So I usually combine a log format with some other kind of presentational area in my notes that is meant to unify and refine my concept of what can be leveraged, and by which method(s).

Reviewing this before I press "add comment," I realize why I like paper books so much...but I guess with e-books you can still keep a separate paper log.

Anyway thanks for posting!

Can, definitely, should is much less obvious. Not everyone's marginalia are as interesting as Oliver Sacks's and there is much to be said for taking in a work without someone else's constant running commentary. It turns books essentially single-user.

I will agree that the notes of an author like Oliver Sacks or Mark Twain will be more interesting to far more people than whatever I end up scribbling in the margin. On the other hand, I don't think a person needs fame in order to be important to other people: I would be willing to trade an awful lot to get a copy of my father's favorite book, annotated with his personal thoughts (it's Frank Herbert's "Dune").

Of course - your father's annotated copy of Dune is understandably interesting and valuable to you, more so than, I dunno, a copy Sting scribbled all over while filming Lynch's Dune. But it still might not be the best way to read it for the first time.

> “Every piece of art I’ve ever made was because I saw bad and could do better, or saw great and needed to catch up.”

I know the context here isn't our tech product development cycles, but it sure could be. Those are exactly the reasons I tend to get inspired to work on something.

Am I the only one who finds this appalling? I'm not a religious person but for me paper books are sacred. I would never mark in a book and am scandalised when I see someone else do it.

I hold the opposite view: I read books to extract intelligence that will help me operate in the world. So I interrogate them like detectives interrogate suspects in movies. I sit alone in a room with a book and point a light at it. By the time I am done the book is in terrible shape -- it is lacerated with earmarks, scratched with scribbles, and if it's a soft cover its spine is cracked. The more worn down the book ends up, the more intel I extracted. There might even be some sadistic pleasure in the process.

I think the idea of revering books as objects comes from an earlier time when books were rare and expensive. But now that books are abundant and cheap, it's a useless conviction. We should cherish books for their content not their physical form.

Plus, once I mark up a book it becomes one of a kind and more valuable. If I keep it intact it's indistinguishable from all the other thousands of its clones.

On occasion, I pick up books from my dad's library. His marginalia from decades ago enhance my reading experience. It becomes a meeting of three minds instead of two. I also enjoy putting down my scribbles next to his. Perhaps a few decades in the future my son will stumble on the same book, traverse the same pages, and trace the thoughts and reactions of his predecessors. For me, that is much more compelling than accumulating a family library filled with pristine volumes that make it indistinguishable from a commercial bookstore.

I very much like the idea of passing down notes through the generations. Much better than one of those Patek Phillipe watches.

There's lots of discussions I never had with my dad, mostly cause it's too awkward but private notes in the margins read when the same words are going into your brain seems a great idea. It's the thought that occurred to them at the same exact moment in time that you're at.

I was raised with this worldview but after seeing piles upon piles of discarded books that no one will ever read again I changed my mind.

It's your book, you can do whatever you want with it. If you want a pristine one you can always get a new one. It might be wasteful but compared to all other waste we produce it's negligible and at least you got something out of it. I'd much rather have the resources be used on printing more of good books rather than full color advertising pamphlets that line the floor.

Who knows, maybe 2000 years from now it is a glimpse of what we were reading in 2018.

Surely no one expected accounting tablets to be read in the 21st century.

Paper books aren't sacred. They were when they were rare, and handwritten by scribes, and stored in archives like the Library of Alexandria to which scholars made pilgrimage, but now books are mass produced like any other media, and much of them are also backed up to software as well, so the medium is in a way irrelevant. You could burn books by the millions today and society would lose nothing of value, so long as we can print millions more, or still have an internet.

I think a big part of this process is getting away from the belief that your reactions to the text are somehow less important than the text itself. One way to elevate your own thoughts and ideas is to write them in the book, alongside the text that inspired the thought or caused the reaction.

In my opinion, it is often easier to revere a famous author than it is to revere yourself. The examples in the article are from famous authors writing in the margins of other famous authors: it's clear why people find this interesting. Perhaps you will touch someone in your own life and someday the notes you write in the margins of your own books will be something that they hold dear. I think that is so much more valuable than leaving behind a book with pristine pages and an unbroken spine.

>Am I the only one who finds this appalling?

No, many people think things will last forever if they treat them as if that's the case.

Then, after they're gone, usually their kids throw out all their pristine books in the garbage, or sell them for $1 per box at a yard sale.

Having recently done this I totally agree. We kept about 20-30 books out of several hundred, the rest went to charity shops.

Yeah, I have too many books myself (the biggest hurdle in any move to a new rent place).

I'd like to go to a purge and only keep ~ 200-300 of special value (signed, perennial favorites, reference works, rare prints, non available digitally, etc).

What grinds my gears is how ebooks don't have a common format for notes/marginalia, ability to easily export whole passages, etc that can sync to my note keeping apps, work processors, etc.

Each is its own silo (if they even allow for proper annotations).

Did any of the ones you kept have marginalia?

No. My parents and grandparents were fairly precious about books and if they wanted to would make separate notes. Occasionally they'd have inscriptions on the front pages about where they came from or who they belonged to etc.

I used to do it in technical manuals but never in novels. I've thought about it but when I actually go to do it think it's silly and my thoughts are my thoughts not to be shared. Off feeling as I love the idea of it.

I have started pencilling in the front cover my initials and when I read a book, just gives it a little life I think.

> I'm not a religious person but for me paper books are sacred. I would never mark in a book(…)

You might be surprised by how many religious people profusely annotate their sacred texts. :)

But I see your point: to keep the book undefiled so it can have a long useful life and perhaps even be passed down generations. However the point is utilitarian, not sentimental: the purpose of books is to expand the mind of the reader, and in the age of cheap printing the book can be molded to its reader. When you go back and read a book, you can get a better glimpse of what you were thinking the previous times you read a section, and reflect on whether that position confirmed over time, got invalidated or perhaps became a bit more nuanced.

Thank goodness, I am not the only one finding this habit a terrible, unforgivable profanation of the book. At least there are two of us.

> I'm not a religious person but for me paper books are sacred.

Most of my French friends are genuinely revolted by how I treat the books that I use for work.

I highlight, write in the margins (often with a pen, not even with a pencil), then scan passages for students, who in turn, are often revolted by what they see.

Writing notes or underlining random sections feels like someone shouting comments during a movie in a theater.

More like shouting comments at a TV alone in your room.

I think the analogy holds if you assume he means shared books, like in a library.

I certainly feel this way about the passages that the Amazon Kindle chooses to highlight (I think it's based on how many people underline a section). It is not my favorite feature.

You definitely used to be able to turn that feature off, not sure if they ripped that toggle out or something though.

A few decades ago, books were often rather expensive. People didn't buy a book but borrow it from a library and they shared book with others. Or they planned to sell a book later on. In such a situation, it's better to make notes on extra sheets of paper. Since books are cheap now and you hardly get anything for used books (unless they are an antiquity), it probably doesn't matter.

I still think though there is a surplus value in making notes on extra sheets of papers: it's easier to skim through your notes and to find something, and it's easier to archive your notes.

I get that for really rare books, but in general markings/notes aren't bad, and can be very interesting to future readers. I think in a book borrowed from a friend, inherited from a relative or otherwise obtained from someone I know margin notes etc are quite nice to have, giving an insight into what they thought when they read it.

I used to feel this way. I don't know how, but I lost that feeling pretty quick when I tried making notes in the margins.

Also, I felt the book "lost its value" when I scribbled in it. This point can be easily overcome by realizing that you will never "sell" a used book for more than postage, except for extraordinary books like art books etc.

I have completely switched to digital. Novels on Kindle (I often read in my second or third language and a pop-up dictionary is very handy), non-fiction on Laptop as PDF which I intensively annotate. Annotating, scribbling and highlighting is part of active reading which I found very valuable.

The amounts of money I've saved by selling my college books in "very good condition" is appallingly small compared to the lost learning opportunity.

You are not alone, but I wish I took more ownership of my books and added notes and corrections.

I find underlined text, highlighted text, and notes in margins distracting. It's harder to read the text, and I rarely care about what some previous reader of unknown mental faculties found useful.

I view a book as a machine for producing knowledge, ideas, and affects. Writing in the book is, for me, standard machine operation that does not impair its usefulness.

Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.

Areopagitica ~ John Milton

(slightly edited)

This isn't destroying a book though, it's adding more life into it.

Someone once wrote that there are two kinds of book lovers, the platonic and the carnal.

Books are data storage with shitty capacity.

Reading with a pencil, and active reading, and arguing with the paper is what works for me for reading research papers. http://muratbuffalo.blogspot.com/2013/07/how-i-read-research...

Thanks for that excellent write-up. I’m curious if you also read less rigorously if, e.g., you’re breaking into a new sub area and need to rapidly get up to speed on prior work.

(I’m curious because since I’ve transitioned from academia to industry I’ve found it very difficult to give an extremely thorough treatment to anything but the very most relevant papers. But I still think I’d benefit from keeping up with research, especially as my engineering work takes me further afield from my academic background.)

I sometimes read less rigorously to determine whether the paper deserves a rigorous reading. However, I don't get much out of a casual reading. This may be a quirk of my brain: maybe ADHD tendencies at play, or maybe I really need to go slow and internalize the content.

I see some people can read quickly and get some benefit, but I don't really envy them. I think going slow and struggling with the material teaches me more. I am reminded of Haruki Murakami.

On his book "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running", he says roughly the following. Gifted writers write without effort; everywhere they touch in the ground the water pours. Other writers have to strive (he gives himself as an example); they have to learn to dig wells to get to the water. But when the water dries (inspiration leaves) for the gifted writer (which happens sooner or later), he becomes stuck and clueless because he has not trained for this. On the other hand, under the same situation, the other type of writer knows how to keep going and succeed.


So I am not too worried about my slowness :-)

i've done this for years now. it's a great way to maintain attention, single out passages for later read-throughs, and note the weak points of the author for the purposes of composing a response or synthesis understanding.

one practice that i have used to great effect is circling the names of other authors and other texts which the piece that i'm reading mentions. then, if it's relevant, i can later hunt down the other resources easily. you can do some really cool exploration through certain intellectual movements that you'd never otherwise encounter. using that method i've discovered a few of my favorite authors (edward bernays, walter lippmann, etc).

notably, the book that goes into this practice and other scribblings in great detail is the timeless classic, "how to read a book" by adler. there's an entire section describing how to use marginalia to improve your understanding and set the stage for syntopical reading wherein you gain the deepest level of understanding and link-ins with outside information.

there's probably enough utility in pencil-reading to give an entire class on it. i can't praise it enough.

This is the single biggest disadvantage with ebooks for me. I find myself carrying a small notebook with my Kindle, but it's obviously not as good, and digital note input is nearly useless.

I am an avid note taker on my Kindle Paperwhites and Voyage. The response time is frustrating at first, but you get used to it and the advantages are worth it.

I remember when the iPhone first came out and everyone in my company said they’d never switch because the Blackberry thumbboard was so much better. We all know how that ended...

If it’s helpful, you can reassure yourself that the slow response time is a feature rather than a bug. Being forced to type slowly and parsimoniously might cause deeper understanding:

> "In a small but fascinating study, two psychologists tried to find out if it made a difference if students in a lecture took notes by hand or by typing them into their laptops (Mueller and Oppenheimer 2014). They were not able to find any difference in terms of the number of facts the students were able to remember. But in terms of understanding the content of the lecture, the students who took their notes by hand came out much, much better. After a week, this difference in understanding was still clearly measurable. There is no secret to it and the explanation is pretty simple: Handwriting is slower and can’t be corrected as quickly as electronic notes. Because students can’t write fast enough to keep up with everything that is said in a lecture, they are forced to focus on the gist of what is being said, not the details." (Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes)

Resurfaced by readwise.io

> "Because students can’t write fast enough to keep up with everything that is said in a lecture, they are forced to focus on the gist of what is being said, not the details."

None of that applies when annotating a text, though. The poor on-screen keyboard of the Paperwhite discourages me from taking any notes at all, or to leave out important context information.

If I could write with a stylus on my Kindle I'd agree, but tapping and correcting the inevitably wrong input over and over doesn't do for me what handwriting does.

Unless there's some hidden handwriting note option on Kindle that I missed?

Marking a section that crosses a page change is sadistically hard. It always takes me four or five tries.

Hah! I don't even bother. I just mark both.

about 10 years ago i had a sony brand e-reader that had a stylus which enabled seamless underlining / writing on the margins. it's since been discontinued, and i haven't ever found anything remotely comparable despite checking in on it every other year or so. it's a real shame.

That's my biggest hate for Amazon; the kindle killed of the Sony e-readers. Admittedly they were pricey but they were so much nicer.

I do this with an iPad, iBooks, and an Apple Pencil. Works great, and GoodNotes is amazing for scribbling random thoughts and notes as well.

i understand that this is "the" way to do it these days, but it's way too expensive. the old ereader was maybe $120, and did what i wanted to out of the box and with stellar battery life.

Same here!! Drives me crazy.

I sometimes take notes in more technical volumes that I'm reading as PDFs on my thinkpad yoga, but I don't want to pull my whole damn laptop out just to read, so I'm reduced to tapping away misspelled notes in my Kindle... Very frustrating.

Check out the Remarkable

Found it here: https://remarkable.com

Looking through the marketing material, this may be exactly what I have been looking for. 600$ a steep price tag.

You wouldn't happen to know the file format compatibilities? I'm off on a review search but nobody's mentioned it yet.

Edit: according to this review [0], epubs and PDFs.

Edit2: er, weirdly, this things pen tips need to be replaced like once a month lol: "An extra set of eight Marker tips costs $12. reMarkable says each tip should last at least three weeks, and that less pressure and usage could extend their life to six weeks."


I own one. I use it daily, the part about the toys is very true. It's, I think, 4 - 5 months old now, and I've burned through 4 tips.

It comes with 12 tips total though, so that'd be approximately 12$ a year.

The bigger problem are not the tips, it's that there are barely any DRM-free ebooks available anywhere, even if you are willing to pay for them ;(

I'm still using it on a nearly daily basis though..

There's a $200 Good e-Reader 6.8 [1], there's a bit delay when you making a stroke on the screen, according to the review videos on YouTube.

Don't know if anyone ever used it yet, anyone?

[1] https://goodereader.com/blog/product/good-e-reader-6-8

Looks like just an Android tablet running an eink touch display. May be good enough, if there are Android apps available for editing ebooks. If I can't find reviews I might just take the plunge and do my own.

Too late for an edit:

I can't find a single review of this device by not-that-company, and also it's not even in stock lol.

I have a Remarkable paper tablet for full-size PDF reading, and it's perfect for scribbling on the pages.

And I get SSH access out of the box, so I can bypass their cloud service!

[0]: https://remarkable.com/

How'd you set up ssh access? Their proprietary cloud thing is a major blocker for me.

You can literally SSH into it, the password is in the GPLv3 license text.

I just mount the data directory via sshfs and run the unofficial Linux app:

  fusermount -u ~/.var/app/com.remarkable.desktop/data/remarkable/desktop

  sshfs -o nonempty root@rmk:.local/share/remarkable/xochitl ~/.var/app/com.remarkable.desktop/data/remarkable/desktop

  flatpak run --filesystem=~/myBooks/ com.remarkable.desktop

  read -p "Restart xochitl? " -n 1 -r
  if [[ $REPLY =~ ^[Yy]$ ]]
    ssh root@rmk systemctl restart xochitl

  fusermount -u ~/.var/app/com.remarkable.desktop/data/remarkable/desktop
There's a wiki: http://remarkablewiki.com/

A subreddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/RemarkableTablet/

Toolchain: https://remarkable.engineering

Unofficial ePaper library: https://github.com/canselcik/libremarkable

flatpak package for the Linux client: https://flathub.org/apps/details/com.remarkable.reMarkable

It's by far the most open ePaper device right now :)

I think it's worse when you go from Kindle to a fully fledged tablet. iPad + Pencil seems like the best way to do this, far and above, and yet virtually no apps support markup with the Pencil. Lost opportunity, if you ask me.

Once again DRM is the root cause here. There are many great pdf readers that support Annotations with the Apple Pencil, but it is not possible to import the book. And unfortunately (especially for non fiction) there is a lack of services which provide drm free ebooks.

No starch press is great for DRM free, but only if you want books on programming...

Going split screen with Notability is still a good way to read a book. I usually note down chapter headings and sometimes copy out sentences mixed with my own thoughts or summaries.

I use fbreader and anote and highlight ebooks all the time.

as an engine mechanic, I find this article horrifying for technical manuals in a shop. If i need the clearances for ecotec engine valves, I dont want to see some crayon-eating technicians doodles in the margins. I also dont want to see some shade-tree greybeards corrections and musings about how "this is how it was done back in my day."

This is why we keep notes at our workstations, not in our reference bookshelf.

I bow to your experience, but I can see how technical manuals similar to recipe books could definitely benefit from notes that say "this did/didn't work because...". If you've got rubbish colleagues, then yes you've got a problem, but also you could have an excellent record from the old master that just retired.

You could keep notes as separate pages in the book, but having the notes in context does appear to have the potential to enhance a manual rather than ruin it.

I don't think I've ever written in a book. So many of the books I read are from libraries, or they're second-hand, perhaps very old, and I intend to pass them on later, so I think of a book as a thing shared between many people who might not want to see each other's notes.

Also, I've had to scan old books, when annotations were a nuisance.

Also, I've received books that previously belonged to the author and scanned through them looking for corrections by the author, with a view to incorporating them into a posthumous new edition. It is tedious to turn 300 pages looking for a correction that perhaps isn't there. Writing in a book is an inefficient way of recording half a dozen notes or corrections relating to a 300-page book. Writing those notes on a slip of paper inserted into the book would be more efficient.

I write on print-outs, of course. When the notes are sparse I make a mark in the corner of every page that I have written on so that I can quickly find those pages again.

This is how one learns. You write to remember it now. Not later.

I use post-it notes. My post-it notes underlines the sentence involved generally.

Sometimes when re-reading books, I find old opinions or understandings that are no longer correct or opinions I no longer hold.

The downside is that my books tend to get a bit thicker

Do others do a similar thing but with digital notes?

I used to take notes on books in notebooks and mark the page numbers. Over time it switched to ebooks with TextEdit, then org-mode for writing thoughts on books/talks. It's nice to break a book down by section or concepts and have it all in one place as opposed to being scattered throughout random pages or listed at the end of the book.

It's usually pretty easy to convert ebooks/pdfs to audiobooks or use a TTS tool to read each page, one at a time. That makes it easier to write notes while you're listening to the book. You can also get used to reading around 400 wpm, which is nice if you're a slow visual reader.

Since the comments aren't directly in the book, it's not as geared towards English editing as marginalia is. It's great for summarizing technical material though or learning new concepts!

Out of interest, how do you tend to structure the org-files? Do you enjoy reading long-form text at a laptop/desk?

I’ve made a few attempts to do this (often with org-mode, pdf-tools, and interleave-mode), but I’ve always gone back to printing and scribbling on paper. It just feels more natural, but my notes end up being more ephemeral.

I’d like to be able to sync and search my notes very much, however! Any tips?

Sure, I usually set org files up by book/talk > chapter/concept > (any further level of nesting)+. Here are a couple examples. From watching "Abstract" on Netflix I did one entry for the show with a bunch of random notes because there wasn't as much structure to the content. Most of my book notes more or less follow the book > chapter > sub heading pattern. Tech talks usually have a format like talk title > subject > details. I've stuck to using one file for most of my notes the last few years. You should play around with it and see what works best for you.

Reading with a desktop or laptop has been easier for me since it's more familiar. I'm not really a fan of mobile phones or kindle readers. Evince or fbreader work OK on linux. You could add espeak or another TTS tool for speaking text. On OSX there's acrobat with voice over. Screen readers exist but are harder to control. The tools for reading via TTS are pretty primitive right now unfortunately.

I'm pretty bad at syncing notes... I've primarily done it with rsync over ssh. If you save things back to a server and sync from there that could work. Otherwise there's easier stuff like Google Drive or Dropbox.

Absolutely, I use Skim to annotate PDF files. On Kindle, I often highlight or take notes. I wish there was one central service that would merge all my annotations from separate devices.

Totally agree -- makes the book more of a dialog with myself. Looking at my wife's notes in a book are interesting: her reading could be quite different from mine.

OTOH my son came back at the beginning of his second year of high school and announced "you are not allowed to correct my textbooks any more!"

Seeing other people's hand-annotations in books is fascinating--regular folks even, not just eminent authors. Sort of a voyeuristic thrill maybe.

I stopped marking up my books for a while because it made me loathe to loan them out. But now I've just stopped loaning them out.

I tried doing this but it slows down my reading, breaks the flow of the book and makes reading a slog. How do folks overcome this problem?

I really want to do this because I think this type of critical reading of books contributes to active learning.

If you're really trying to actively learn, I think it's best to do multiple passes. Read the book once and write some thoughts at the very end, and then read through a second time while taking more detailed notes. Your notes will probably be higher quality, as you can write "this confusing idea will be explained in chapter 8" instead of "this idea is confusing".

None of us have the time to do this with every book. It's not a bad idea to skim every book that looks interesting (I do it in about an hour and end up with a couple pages of high-level notes), then decide which books are worth active reading.

Slowing down your reading is the whole point. You spend the time thinking your own thoughts and having a dialog with the book instead of just letting the author’s ideas wash past unchallenged.

I believe that using Frixion[1] pens you can erase the ink (more precisely, it becomes transparent) by applying heat to it. This is usually done by rubbing the written area with the "eraser" at the top of the pen, but I think you can do a bulk erase (before reselling/donating the book, for example) by placing it in a microwave oven.

Anyone has done this/can provide feedback?

[1] https://www.nippon.com/en/features/c00520/

I love Frixion pens and use them every day when writing notes, and annotating drafts. They're also great for writing under a document camera when teaching. Although I wish there was an intermediate thickness between the thin ball-points and the really fat felt-tips.

That said, I wouldn't use Frixion pens to write in books that I wasn't prepared to write in using normal pens. The ink doesn't completely disappear. The color also comes back (to some extent) if you put the paper in a freezer.

People who do this to library and second hand books need a slap.

Has to be said.

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