How to Read a Book, #1

As with most things in life, it helps to get practicalities out of the way first.


I visited my parents recently, and spent the afternoons browsing my library. While the old books brought great comfort, the reunion left me wondering if I’ve been treating books well at all these past few years.

As a child, I used to keep books in pristine condition, going as far as to wrap the most loved ones in clear plastic. There was never a stray mark or a stain or a dog-ear in sight.

My years of training to be a physicist changed everything. Suddenly, important formulae had to be readily accessible, and the most valuable bits of information had to jump out of a page at first glance. Over the years, I came to highlight, underline, and record marginalia with reckless abandon. And, slowly, books from across genres came to be treated that way.


Onwards to scattered thoughts on the matter of highlighting — or taking notes — while reading, and how that informs the (re)reading experience.

Does it help retain information better? Does it make texts look less beautiful/appealing? Does it pollute the reading experience? Does it introduce an inescapable bias into every subsequent reading?

The advantages seem too significant to be ignored:

  1. Desecration as GPS
    I find that notes and highlighted text help me locate specific sentences in physical books faster and with increased efficiency. When it comes to books that have deeply influenced me, I tend to remember the general position of what I’m looking for — how far into the book it is, and if I should be scanning the left or the right side — but landmarks always make locating things easier. I have no spatial memory of words read on-screen, so this benefit remains confined to the analogue world. (Not that this could beat digital search anyway.) 
  2. Build a Time Machine (Or: Taint Today, Soil Tomorrow)
    Note-taking allows access to historical opinions/selves that I may have forgotten about, and helps me trace my own evolution. Books record the exact context in which thoughts were formed: right alongside the writer’s original words. In doing so, I find that physical books aid superior recall of historical thoughts by maintaining close resemblance to their birth environment. The act of holding an old book again, reading half-remembered print, looking at my own handwriting, and inhaling an aged version of a familiar scent transports me to a historical state of mind like no journal ever could. Context could also be captured in a journal, of course, but not in such great depth, or with such accuracy and precision. It’s difficult to find a satisfactory substitute for the familiar tactile/visual/olfactory stimuli that a physical book offers.

And then there’s the dark side of defiling texts:

  1. Mark = Bias (Or: Memory is fallible, as is note-taking)
    When rereading a book that I remember almost nothing about, foreign marks distract and even take away from the rereading experience. I find that their visual weight guides the eye towards highlighted bits, and negatively impacts the consumption of surrounding information. This makes it very difficult to remain unbiased, even in the absence of any recollection of the material being consumed. Reading sullied text becomes an act of consuming censored broadcast, in that only a few words are let through and the voice of my past self (or another reader) drowns out the writer’s.

Right. More later.




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