Every one learns how to read in elementary school, but most students do not receive specific instructions on how to get the most out of a book. Recently, some of my students have asked about how to take better notes on books, so in this blog post I’m going to give some general guidelines. My approach to taking notes on books is based on How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. Every college student should be handed this book at matriculation. Here’s a basic summary of their ideas on reading books.
The key to understanding a book is being a reader who actively engages with the author. Ask questions as you read. What’s the author saying? Is the author right? Does what the author says have any significance whatsoever? Active reading, in which the reader dialogues with the author, is more work than passive reading, but it pays much greater dividends.
You should start by figuring out how to approach the book in question. Not every book ought to be read from cover to cover. Before you plow into page one, give the book a quick flip-through. Look at the table of contents; look at the index. Skim a bit of prose. In just a few minutes you should be able to ascertain the book’s genre, main argument, and structure. Sometimes this is as much as you need to know about the book. If your professor assigned it, however, you’ll probably need to know a bit more.
Quickly inspecting the book will aid you in the deeper reading that will follow. You’ll need something to help you do this deeper reading, a pencil. The following points are Adler’s guidelines for marking a book.
1. Underline major points.
2. Draw vertical lines in the margin to emphasize passages that reinforce a major point or are too long to underline.
3. Draw stars or asterisk in the margin to emphasize the dozen or so most important points in the entire book. Perhaps you should dog-ear these pages too.
4. Write numbers in the margin when an argument is progressing point by point.
5. Write the page numbers in the margin that refer to other passages in the book that relate to the one you’re marking.
6. Circle key words or phrases.
7. Write your thoughts, questions, and answers in the margins at the side, top, or bottom of the page. (This is my favorite part, because it’s your opportunity to get really snarky if you’re so inclined.)
Also, don’t forget that you have the end papers at the beginning and end of the book. These can be used for recording a broad outline or big conceptual questions and answers that deal with the entire book. The end papers are your friends.
All this might seem a bit daunting at first, but after a little practice it becomes second nature. You’ll eventually develop your own method of marking that works for you, and when you pick up a book that you’ve read previously all the concepts will come back to you. I’d encourage you, however, not to settle for my brief outline. Go get your own copy of How to Read a Book, and get busy reading.