I read with a highlighter. My brand? The yellow Sharpie Accent highlighter, which I get from Staples. I go through a package of four about once a month, and like to have a package or two in the drawer of my Ikea credenza, ready to go.
I don’t highlight fiction or creative writing, except in those rare cases when a book contains material that I think will be of research value. Recently I made highlights in The Mystery of Mar Saba by James H. Hunter (and which I reviewed in this space). But my highlighter is poised over every work of nonfiction I read, and if I can’t find anything worth highlighting, then for me that book is not worth reading.
I’m not sure exactly when I took up the practice of systematic highlighting, but I believe it was in the 1990s. My first efforts at marking up books were in my late teens, underlining a phrase here and there. (Of course, I mark up only my own books. Library books I actually read with an eraser, removing as much markup as I can. I also clean off the covers of library books with a damp cloth, my intention being to return the book in better condition than I got it.) It took a long time to break down the taboo against marking up books, inculcated mainly by 12 years of public schooling with school-owned textbooks. Later, with my own books, I was worried about “wrecking” books by marking them up, especially expensive hardbacks.
But I’m over that. I came to realize that my books were not assets whose value to others I was trying to preserve, but rather assets of my own whose value to myself I was trying to maximize.
Why do I highlight? There are a couple of reasons. One of course is that I want to be able to pick out the key ideas if I return to a book. Over the years, I came to realize that returning to scan a book was a lot easier if the text was highlighted in complete sentences rather than in disconnected phrases. So gradually my highlighting became a process of compressing the text of a book, creating a condensed version of it for my own use. Now I can go into any highlighted book and read it cover to cover, scanning only its highlights. A book that originally took me 20 sittings to read I can now read in, say, 3 or 4. The “full sentence” approach makes this rereading easy and logically connected.
And it does something else: it intensifies my initial reading of the book. Looking to highlight a book in full sentences turns me from a relatively passive reader into something more like an active editor. For the full sentences I create are not necessarily full sentences in the original text; they are often stitched together from clauses and phrases in different sentences, even different paragraphs.
Here’s an example. This morning I was typing notes from a book called Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can by Caroline Myss. My date-mark inside the book tells me that I got it in November 2000, and I probably read and highlighted it shortly thereafter. I started typing notes (my highlights) from the book at the time, but then left off. I recently picked it up againalmost 11 years later. This morning I typed my highlights from this paragraph on page 76, from chapter 3 on “The Chakras, the Astrological Ages, and the Forms of Power”:
Eastern culture was initiated into this new energy pattern through the birth of Gautama the Buddha. The Buddha was born around 500 BC, roughly three-quarters of the way through the age of Aries, but the growth of Buddhism took place in three distinct periods, of which the first shared certain characteristics of Arien energy. The first era, or “turning of the wheel” in Buddhist parlance, is known as Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism and dominated the first five hundred years of Buddhism. Theravada was characterized by practices of renunciation of all earthly possessions and a life of strict separation from any personal human bonding. Reflecting the fire elements of Aries and the law-and-order quality of that age, the strict code of behavioral disciplines that made up Theravada doctrine did not recognize emotional needs as anything more than obstacles to being in the present moment.
And here is the compressed version, made up of my highlights:
Eastern culture was initiated into this new energy pattern through the birth of Gautama the Buddha. The Buddha was born around 500 BC, but the growth of Buddhism took place in three distinct periods, of which the first shared certain characteristics of Arien energy. The first era, or “turning of the wheel” in Buddhist parlance, is known as Hinayana, characterized by renunciation of all earthly possessions and a life of strict separation from any personal human bonding.
Typing the highlights is the final step in my “reading” of a book. I create a Word document and type out all the highlights in the book, so I have a single compressed version of it on my PC, which I can then search, copy, and paste at will in my other documents. The process of typing acts as another rereading of the book, one that is further intensified by the very fact that I’m not simply reading but am also typingso that the information goes in not only through my eyes but also, so to speak, through my fingers. It’s a chance to further consolidate my grasp of the material.
Now that I’ve written this I realize that I could probably do a more expanded version as a “how to” text on reading with a highlighter. Maybe that could be my first Kindle Single! What do you think?