Underlining books


Since last year, I’ve returned to the university. Living a bit closer to the university town, owning a much better car, and being allowed to park five minutes away from the new town elevators, just one-to-five minute away from the various university buildings, is a funny experience compared to my past experience. It is a bit like having to decide between going out for a walk, or for a lesson.

Back at the university, I also had to face an old problem: whether to underline books or not. I did it for the last two exams - but I really hated those books, and was happy to damage them. But I didn’t do it with the two previous exams - based on books that were too precious to be even touched with wet fingers.

Unfortunately, underlining is the quickest way to go through a book. The alternative is writing down a synopsis in something like a Cornell Note Page, and then highlight key concepts - those that you would mark heavily if underlining a book - next to the body text. A much longer work, that could let you miss or misunderstand some important passages.

The next exam is based on nice books that I wouldn’t want to damage. Should I touch them with just a hint of pencil, or go for the synopsis?


Dilemma. I have had the same problem over the past couple of years. I hate books which have been written on, and this is enough to put me off re-reading them – not good if I have had an exam to revise for. Besides, the things that I consider noteworthy when I go through material for the first time very rarely correspond with the things I would highlight later on in the course. Highlights and notes in book margins are not productive for me as a learning tool. Although I did sit an “open-book” exam on Shakespeare with a “Complete Works” as the allowed book, and deliberately prepared ten plays by using a highlighter pen to mark key extracts so that I could find them quickly in the exam hall. The book is ruined for any other purpose, but it was the only approach I could think of to help under rather specific exam conditions, and it certainly proved its worth on that occasion.

Since starting studying again, I have tried writing extensive notes by hand, but I found that I never revisited these so might as well not have bothered. Then I experimented with using DevonThink instead, but never really got up and running (although my DevonThink skills have improved since then, so I may try this approach again for my next course). I moved on to using Scrivener to store jottings (such as I might have written in a book had I been that sort of person), annotating them with book name and page/paragraph number, but found that the hassle of comparing the note with the original text was enough to put me off doing it. I seem to have settled into a pattern of simply not making any notes, which (against the odds) seems to be working fine.

By the way, I hadn’t heard of the Cornell Note format before reading your post, so I looked it up on the internet. Nice.

Edited to add: I do, of course, make notes during tutorials and other face-to-face classes, otherwise I would completely forget what has been said! But most of my studies are book-based, so that scenario slipped my mind when writing the above.

Uh, Post-It notes?

I was working in publishing when they first appeared (replacing paper clips and dog-ears, both very much mute and helpful only as place-markers), and it revolutionized our workflow like nothing else, at least until the computer came along.

I literally own no (useful) books whose margins aren’t forested with Post-Its. Marking up books with pen and highlighter is vandalism. Plopping onto the margin a Post-It note (four sizes of them by my bed, by my desk, beside the, er, terlet, with an emergency assortment stuck inside the shirt-pocket-notebook-of-the-moment) provides instant and nondestructive annotation capabilities.

When I’m ready to extract their intelligence, I just peel them off, arrange them by topic or importance, and transfer their contents to the appropriate Scrivener file. Num-num-num: There’s my set of entertaining quotations from Melville about Mrs. Hussey and her chowder.

Thank you very much for your hints, and overview on your working method.

Siren: I tried to do without notes, but it didn’t work, forcing me to re-read too much text just before the exams.

Ahab, the post-it solution seems suitable to me, too. They seem perfect to take notes when far from a computer, and at the same time allow for later writing separate notes when at the desk. I’ll try it for my next exam.


I have tried a number of different things when it comes to marking up books. I’m pretty heavy into annotation whenever I read anything, even a novel, and so finding a good solution to this problem that doesn’t damage the book is something important to me. I started out using Book Darts, probably one of the greatest book related marking inventions in recent history. It’s a simple copper sheet of metal folded over with a rounded back and an arrow on the top that slips onto a sheet of paper as securely as a paperclip, but since it is flat it doesn’t bend the paper. The arrow shape on the top lets you point it right at the line of interest.

But, while Book Darts are great and all, they really only replace highlighting or underlining, and they aren’t quite as good as a highlight because they only indicate a single fixed point, not a start and stop. They also don’t really solve the desire to comment on a text. Another problem is that they are fairly expensive. A good book can easily consume an entire tin of darts, and that’s $10 USD right there. The price of them causes one to feel as though they should be re-using them, which would reduce their permanence.

The next thing I tried was index cards. I went with index cards instead of Post-It notes for two reasons: A) they have a larger surface area and are ruled, so they are better for taking down longer ideas. B) They can be easily removed from the book and stored in an index card box, if for some reason I ever wish to get rid of the book or no longer desire to keep the notes with the book. What I did was write down the name of the book on the top line, along with the page number and paragraph number, and then wrote down whatever it was I wish to note in the content area of the card. Sometimes I would just copy down the source text. I’d then leave the index card in the middle of the page and move on. If for some reason a card slipped out, the page number at the top would let me know where it should be replaced.

I ended up abandoning that method as well, as I’m really too digital for it, and plus it doesn’t really work well for e-books, where I do about 3/4s of my reading.

So the method I’ve been using for the past few years is less organised at the top, and more organised at the bottom. Whenever I start a book, I take a single index card, which will serve as a bookmark, and write down the time and date using my oddball format. In case you haven’t read any of my other posts on the topic, I use this as a form of identification number. Practically everything that goes through my archival system gets an ID number. If I see a movie, it gets a number and then whenever I write anything about that movie I can cross-reference to it. Once I have a number for something, I can then search my archives and collect everything I’ve ever written about a topic based on the ID number in two steps. I also jot down the title of the book on the index card as well, in case it gets dropped or whatever.

Now, as I read the book, I keep a cheap disposable journal for all of my reading commentation. When I come across something I wish to save, or have a thought pertaining to something in the book, I’ll jot down the book ID and page number on a line and then proceed with whatever I wished to say. At the end of every day, I transcribe these digitally and they all get dispersed into files that I keep, one for each book. So as I read each book’s annotation document accumulates notes from various sources. For paper books it’s usually my cheap journal, with the Kindle its the exported annotation log file entries.

When I’m done with the book, I just keep that index card in it so that I have a two-way reference. In the digital archive I can find that number easily enough, but if I’m not around a computer I’ll always have that number available from the paper book as well. With the Kindle I usually insert a note on the title page including this number, even though it is of less importance there since highlights and annotations are automatically digitised for me.

The final result is a single document for each book, usually split into three parts. The first part has basic book info such as title, author, publication & year, and ISBN. The second part is highlights—simply a list of quotations I wished to save. The third part is notes and thoughts I had while reading.

Once I’ve finished with the book, I’ll sometimes print this out, fold the paper and slip it into the book so that I have my notes with the book as well. I tend to do this more for non-fiction.

The advantages are that I have a pristine book and the notes are completely separate from the book. If one writes in the book itself, or uses Post-Its, the book becomes much more valuable as it contains not only the book, but all your thoughts on it. With separated notes I’m more free to re-sell the book, loan it out, or not worry about it getting lost.

So, I guess you could say I’m in the Cornell crowd, only digitally speaking.

Ok, I am stupid so I feel no shame in asking.

Does anyone else “just read” books?

I have a decent library, but I have never marked a book that is not “work” related. If there was some point that I really need to capture I just sit there enjoying the moment then put it in a notebook.

For the “work” stuff, which sounds more like the intention here, I second the post it. If the post it isn’t big enough I use a pointer to an external location. This used to be note card and spirals but quickly became files on disk.

I am not a good example of “the right way to do things” in general and certainly not when it comes to note taking. Although I will shout the praises of the pule pen. I have started using it and a little flip for “quick notes” to myself. Might want be of interest…

Mark me down as “too serious”, but generally no, I don’t just read books. Every once in a while I’ll pick up some pulp and nothing comes out of it. I still make my little identification bookmarks just in case, but there is no compulsion to use it unless needed. For the most part though, I do read to learn, and part the of the learning process for me is collecting information and expanding upon it.

I do just read them, and I might make notes later if something prompts an idea, but generally if I am reading other people’s fiction then it’s for pleasure, not research.

If I am researching then I will take notes rather than mark the book. Not because I don’t want to damage the book, but because I’ll be able to find it again in my notes.

I suppose I’m lucky in that the books I read for entertainment are also in many ways work related. If you’re a writer on eclectic subjects, pretty much everything is work-related, from Madame Bovary to the ingredients in Bovril.

I typically only Post-It-populate the margins of books that specifically relate to a project I’m working on, or thinking of working on. As immediately after reading as feasible, I transfer the Post-It intelligence bits, one at a time, to Scrivener, stripping them from the margins as I go.

For casual reading–magazines, books that don’t specifically relate to something I’m working on or thinking of working on–I use index cards as bookmarks, dating each one and noting the title of the book at the top, and then copying out interesting bits I might come across of possible future use, sometimes a full sentence, usually just a page number and a cryptic note. These, too, get transfered to Scrivener files when time permits.


091309–Orlando, Virginia Woolf
Possible chapter opener for
p7 – “For once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.”

Of course I don’t hold this up as a shining example to all. It’s just an adopted adaptation to information overload coming at a time in life when I need three trips to the root cellar to emerge holding a potato.

A few things factor into which annotation method I use. If I don’t own the book, I never make any marks in it. Before Scrivener, I’d flag the selections I wanted with sticky notes, because I could write on the sticky notes. Now, I just type what I need into Scrivener.

It’s a different story when I own the book. I’m a happy highlighter, and I’ve been known to use one main color and a second color for extra-important text. I also write notes in the margins (especially in law books), and on top of that, I love page flags. When I’ve finished turning the book into a colorful, flagged mess, then I get out the laptop and start typing.

But it’s all a matter of what works best for you, for your own work style.

I would read them first.