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On reading books

Category Articles
Date March 8, 2002


I thought it might be advantageous to delineate how I myself read books. I don’t presume to be a reader or bibliophile superior to all of our readers (I am certain that a number are quite superior to me!), but I believe it will be helpful to some who are perhaps looking for some instruction or direction in how better to read and to retain what they have read.


First, to me, the odour of a new book and sometimes even an old book is important. I exult in the smell of the paper when I remove the shrink-wrapping; and once or twice in my lifetime, I have read books entirely because of their pleasant door. No true bibliophile will snicker at this characteristic!


Second, when I first encounter a book I intend to read, I do what Mortimer Adler calls “inspectional reading.” His book, How to Read a Book, is an outstanding work; and it is probably the definitive work in this field. By inspectional reading, I mean what some people call “skimming.” I will read the table of contents, any chapter subheadings, the blurb on the back cover, the book jacket’s inside and outside flaps (although I am careful here, since these promotional blurbs are not always an accurate description of the contents), and even glance over the index. The problem with people who skip the inspectional phase of reading, as Adler notes, is that they are forced to learn the book’s general content while they are reading it. This is silly, unnecessary; and counterproductive. If you have a general ideal of the author’s thesis, you are much more likely to understand his detailed, sustained argument. In short, you should know the writer’s viewpoint and thesis before you start reading his book.


Next, I get a pen and straight edge (and sometimes highlighter) and start reading. When I encounter especially memorable statements, or those I intend to cite or refer to later, I underline them and put words and other notations (like stars) in the margin. I have never encountered a reader who marks up the text of his books as much as I do. There probably is somebody out there; it’s just that I haven’t met him. Not only do I underscore; I use brackets, carets, and braces; I annotate all four margins and I copiously turn down the edges (both top and bottom) of certain especially memorable pages. As a writer myself, I don’t have time to spend thirty or forty minutes trying to locate a single passage or statement; careful underscoring, highlighting, and indexing solves most of that problem. I index by writing above (and sometimes below) the chapter heading within the text the most memorable and significant pages within that chapter, and a brief explanatory note. For instance, chapter 3 on a book relating to the Middle Ages may be titled, “The Problem of Nature and Grace in Thomas Aquinas.” Below it I may write, “p. 74 – Aquinas and the ‘nature of nature.”‘ This would indicate that on page 74 is what I consider a memorable statement (or quotation) on Aquinas’ definition or view of nature or creation. Whenever I am writing on this topic, I can always go back to this book, look at each of the chapter headings, and find this exact quote, generally within two or three minutes.

My wife Sharon once chided me when she saw how my marking had massacred a page, “Why do you do that? Now, nobody else will be able to read it!”

“Precisely,” I responded. “This is my book. It is not meant for other people to read. Let them get their own copy.

This is also why I rarely read library or any other borrowed books – if I can’t mark a book, I simply don’t read it.


Footnotes are (presumably) written to be read and I do read almost all of them. I should say that I highly prefer footnotes to endnotes, unless the chapter or book is very short. Footnotes should be footed on the foot of the page they foot and not punted into the last few pages of the book. Some of the most important statements made in a book are found in footnotes, which is odd, since we would ordinarily think that the most significant statements should be right up there in the text. It doesn’t always go this way, however, and he who skips the footnotes is potentially missing significant information. I should mention, too, that footnotes are also a great source of other books. Many of the books on my shelves are there because I saw the title first cited in some other author’s footnote.

Many books I do not read straight through. If the course of a book begins to bore me, or if the writer needlessly digresses, I will suspend reading and go back to what I consider a more significant book. In fact, I am sometimes reading between ten and fifteen books simultaneously. Since I mark and index books so carefully and copiously, I have no problem quickly recovering the author’s basic argument when I return to a book after having laid it aside. One unintended advantage of reading several books simultaneously is what Adler calls “syntopical reading.” You can often relate something that you are reading in one book to another book. In a number of my books, I place in the margin the name of a particular author. When I go back to reread that page, it will alert me to a similar (or
contrasting) statement or argument by another author.

Because I so copiously mark and index a book, I usually have no need of a bookmark – I simply flip through to find where the marking and indexing stop! This does not apply, of course, to fiction, though (perhaps to my detriment) I have very little time for fiction.


I try to purchase hardback books, but if I have a choice between a hardback and a paperback in a title of whose significance I am unsure, I will generally buy the paperback. If, after reading it, I find it to be of vital value, I send it to Crawford Book Binding Akron, Ohio, to rebind it. At the time of this writing, the cost for high-quality rebinding is $8.00 per book plus shipping. This is often less than the difference between the hardback and paperback retail price of new books.

I have read thousands – perhaps many thousands of books in my lifetime; and if I were to read a book a day for the rest of my life, that would still be approximately 40,000 volumes. Like all bibliophiles, however, my books are old friends; and I would as soon part with heirlooms, automobiles, and houses as I would to part with my books. While I thoroughly enjoy, and benefit from and believe we Christians must exploit the Internet and websites and cyberspace technology; I do not believe electronic books (e-books) will ever replace actual, bound books. Their portability itself is irreplaceable – your battery never goes dead, and you never need to plug into an AC adapter!

We must inspire readers. Because of this, we must continue to stress reading and to produce words – books, monographs, booklets, pamphlets, website articles, and so on.


Reprinted from the Chalcedon Report March 2002 with permission (

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