A new way of reading

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Have you ever felt a creeping sense of dread when reading a book, wondering if maybe you’re doing it the wrong way? Have you ever wondered if there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to read? Do you sometimes feel an itch to reach for a pen and scribble vigorously in the margins, but stop yourself, because you’ve been told all your life that desecrating books is taboo? Many students today are tired of treating books like sacred, holy tomes, whatever their emotional and cultural power. There’s literary precedent for it as well. Take the David Foster Wallace archives at University of Texas at Austin, which contain many items from his personal library. Below is a scan from his copy of Players by Don DeLillo:

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Following in the literary footsteps of David Foster Wallace probably hasn’t ever led anyone astray. If an acclaimed novelist scribbles in his books until the pages are nearly completely covered in ink and treated like relics after his death, perhaps it’s time to revisit and reconsider arcane rules about how readers are meant to treat books in a physical sense. It’s time to realise that the stack of dead trees you paid ten quid for might be the key to knowledge, but only if you treat it as a code to be deciphered. If you’re wondering what this means for you as a reader, it means that anything’s permissible – that’s the very point. Have a book near you, or in front of you? Open it up to a page and start reading. Bend it, dog-ear it, jot random thoughts down in untidy writing, write the definition of words you don’t know in the margins (even if years later you’ll probably be embarrassed by it,) underline vigorously, highlight, write illegible sticky-notes, draw large question marks Oxford-Marginalia-style – whatever you have to do.

If you still aren’t sure where to begin, India Morris, first year English literature student at Merton, has given her thoughts on the importance of reading in your own unique way, as well as sharing her particular method. Before coming to Oxford, she ran a popular blog chronicling her independent studies, including a post on annotating in books that was re-shared by nearly ten thousand other bloggers.

You’re studying English at Merton, but I first “met” you online, when you were running a study advice blog. Do you think there’s value in seeing the reading environments and processes of other people, especially online?

Definitely, and I think the value lies in what you learn from that experience. I never really thought about how I read before but being part of that community showed me that we don’t all read the same way. Apparently I’m quite scientific in the way I read, maybe just a bit too analytical. I’m a little bit jealous of readers who are able to get fully immersed in what they’re reading, people who can just lose themselves in a book. I can’t really do that, and I didn’t realise that until I saw how different reading, as an experience, can be for different people.

The fact that it was an online community was great too, I think because of how accessible it was. Online communities allow anyone, from anywhere in the world, to get together and to talk about what matters to them. I think that’s great, particularly if you don’t have access to a community like that where you live

What are you reading right now?  

This is always a tough one because it’s never just one book. I’m reading Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway for work, The Marriage Plot by Eugenides for fun, and re-reading Father and Son, by Edmund Gosse, for revision.

What’s the most effective way to read for you personally? Do you highlight, make notes in the margins – is there a cohesive system you find crucial?

It depends on what I’m reading and why I’m reading it. If I’m reading for fun I usually won’t make any annotations, but I’ll keep a scrap of paper around so I can note anything I want to go back to later. For The Marriage Plot I literally haven’t written anything down.

If I’m reading for study – which I usually am – it’s a very different process.  I always highlight, and I make a lot of margin notes to remind me why I’ve marked what I have. It still varies from book to book. For instance, when I read Ulysses I highlight anything that resonates with me personally in pink, but I can’t do that with Mrs Dalloway because I find Woolf’s prose so affecting: – if I tried to highlight every line I loved in Mrs Dalloway the entire book would be covered in pink highlighter!

Take us through a brief guide of how you’d read a book – for pleasure or for work.

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For pleasure I just read the book, usually far too quickly. Sometimes I speed read; there are always too many books, and I usually have less than an hour to read for fun each day. For work I actually have some semblance of a system.

Before I start reading a book for study I grab two things: a ruler, and my highlighters. It’s a bit silly but I’m particular about the pens I use in my books, and I’ll only use erasable highlighters because they’re neat, vibrant, and they don’t bleed through the paper. I use the ruler to underline, and keep all my notes and highlights straight. I just like my annotations to be neat. Well, neatish: – I’m a naturally messy perfectionist.

Then I start to read, and I highlight according to the key I’m using for that book. I try to stick to the same colour coding system, but sometimes it varies. In general: Yellow is anything related to formal features, and anything self-referential or meta. Blue is character notes. Green is anything to do with society, usually contextual references but also anything to do with gender or religion. I always have a colour for quotations I just really like which don’t clearly fit into another category – it’s usually pink. If there are themes that are specific to the book I’m reading or the essay I’m planning they get their own colour too: usually purple.

I’m always trying to find a balance between speed and attention to detail, and to help with that I only mark what I think is going to be relevant or useful later. I always have the thought “Is this something I need later?” in the back of my mind when I’m annotating. If it seems especially important, I’ll use a colour coded index flag to mark the page.

My margin notes usually contain short explanations of why my highlights are relevant if that’s not immediately apparent from the quotation. I also make a point of explaining anything I didn’t understand or words I had to look up in a neutral colour – black or pencil. Also, there’ll usually be a lot of margin notes which make links between later sections and earlier pages, or to other books and quotations that are relevant to what I’m reading. Very occasionally my annotations will have something insightful in them, like ideas or theories about whatever I’m reading, but mainly it’s just short explanations to jog my memory later. And a couple of snarky or sarcastic comments make their way into my marginalia too; I think it’s important to keep reading fun, even with a process as analytically geared as mine.