Reading, Annotating, and Reviewing Books: My Method

As a scholar, my job consists of assimilating and disseminating information. The process of reviewing books entails both. My method prioritizes efficiency: reading as quickly as possible with as much comprehension and long-term retention as possible. The information also needs to be stored in a format that makes scholarly work on the material easy. For me, reading is aimed at reviewing; reviewing completes the process of reading. A book is assimilated only when I can express my reflections on it. The method is divided into three steps: 1) setting up the reading environment; 2) reading and taking notes; and 3) drafting the review.

1. Setting Up the Reading Environment

Reading is both a physical and mental activity. People vary as to what they find congenial writing environments, but some physical requirements are invariable. My method uses 1) a book stand, 2) a physical book, 3) a pencil, and 4) a computer. The book’s spine should be broken in to the point that it will lie flat on the book stand without falling shut. If you have to keep holding the book open, you can’t type with both hands. (If you can’t type with both hands, learn.)

The book stand should be positioned so that the book hits your eyes at a 45-degree angle. This improves reading speed. To minimize eyestrain, lighting should be bright but diffuse. Diffuse  lighting is generally from multiple sources or sunlight and doesn’t cast dark, sharp shadows when you hold your hand over the page. You should be able to see both the book and the computer without turning your neck too far. For typing ease, your computer’s resting surface should be at about elbow height when you’re sitting with your arms hanging down. Too high and you will scrunch your shoulders. All of these factors are aimed at allowing you to read comfortably for long periods of time. The book stand is especially important, since you lose too much time typing if you keep setting the book down and picking it up again or try to hold it one hand.

2. Reading and Taking Notes

a. Setting Up the Note File

A few minutes of preparation before reading saves time later. I create a file in OneNote, but other programs are fine. I type the title and author in the page title slot. Then, I type next to it the complete bibliographic information. I operate under the assumption that I may never see this physical book again; this note file needs to contain everything necessary for the review and any future scholarly work. Then I go to the table of contents and copy the chapter headings, giving me a skeleton for my notes. Here is an example of the first stage of setup:

setup shot

b. Reading and Taking Notes

I take notes by chapter; if the chapters are unusually long, I may subdivide the chapters into sections. With a pencil in hand, I focus on reading quickly but thoroughly. When I see a section that looks significant, such that it might be worth making a note, I mark its boundaries in the page margin with my pencil. I don’t write comments or underline each word, because the goal is to interrupt reading as minimally as possible. When the chapter or section is finished, I go back and decide whether the sections I marked are really worth making into notes. Often I find that a passage I marked contains a concept that the author expresses more succinctly later in the section, or even that the idea wasn’t as profound as I originally thought. Sometimes I read books without my pencil, typing notes as I go, and I always end up taking too many notes.

Having chosen the passages, I make a few types of notes. Regardless of the type of note, I always include the page number(s)! A note without page number is worthless for citing later. The first type is a verbatim quote. I make these fairly often, but I tend to sprinkle ellipses liberally to condense the best parts of paragraphs. The second is a paraphrase, in which I state a proposition from the book in my own words. The third just marks content that didn’t get detailed notes. For example, recently I came across a section on Manichean beliefs in a book about Augustine. This section wasn’t particularly relevant to my current resource, so I didn’t take any detailed notes, but I wrote “Manichean beliefs – 72-84” so I would know this section was there in case I need to look up that topic later.

Sometimes I mark up my notes to make them more useful. I often preface a note with a topic to put it in context. For example: Ambrose’s influence, “quoted portion.”  If there is a key word or phrase embedded in a longer quote, I highlight it. Likewise, I might mark listed items embedded in a paragraph. If a particular claim seems unsupported or I suspect the author has made a factual error, I mark the note in red.

c. Writing a Chapter Summary

Once the notes on the chapter are finished, I go back to the beginning of the chapter in my note file and write a summary of it. The summary is really more like a mini-review, as I am already thinking about and interacting with the material. The goal is to write the summary using only the notes in my file. If I did a good job understanding what I read and took good notes, I won’t have to refer back to the physical book. If I do, I may take an additional note or two to remedy the situation.

Here is an example of a section of notes:

notes sample

3. Drafting the Review

A book review’s purpose is to allow the reader to determine whether to read the book and what priority to place on doing so. The reviewer does not just give a generic recommendation, because people are not generic. The reviewer needs to keep in mind individual readers’ interests and abilities. I am still developing my style as a reviewer, but I make adjustments based on the criterion of the review’s purpose. [My reviews are listed here.]

My first paragraph gives a general overview of the book. I introduce the author and outline the theme and general plan of the book. A few body paragraphs summarize the content of the book. However, a review is not an abstract. I try to take a few body paragraphs to highlight remarkable themes or arguments. Here I interact with the book, offering some evaluations and showing how it has influenced my thinking. Toward the end I try to make general remarks about register (academic, literary, popular) and style. I offer an evaluation of the book as a whole and suggest what types of readers would benefit most from it.

The review completes the process of reading by forcing me to think through how the book as a whole fits into my broader intellectual development. It is only in teaching, in the sense of speaking authoritatively to others after a period of reflection, that one completes learning.


The above is my method. Was this helpful? Do you have questions? Do you want to share your own methods?

Published in: on January 3, 2013 at 8:07 pm  Comments (6)  
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Review – Reading for Life by Margaret Miles

“When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life.” ~ Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

This Dickens quote, mentioned by Margaret Miles in Reading for Life, captures the passion behind this book. Miles, a philosopher and historian with experience at Harvard and Berkeley, demonstrates her own desperate, lusty, gasping, grasping, and unflinchingly critical approach toward reading. Miles chooses the six authors that have most influenced her and narrates how she reads them both generously and suspiciously.

So far from a book report, the chapters light up with intellectual fireworks, as Miles brings her whole soul into engagement with these authors, seeing through their eyes a new world and seeing through their pretenses their reality. Like a lover, she plunges into their depths, but not blind to their narrowness, their faults, their inconsistencies. She has lived with them too long to fail to notice those. Miles’ capacity for love is revealed in her refusal to abandon these authors. Whenever she is dazzled by their rhetoric, she sidesteps and sees the carefully concealed flaws. When confronted with their inadequacies, she embraces them as fellow human beings and praises their intentions.

Her choice of subjects is not prescriptive. No “great books” curriculum is outlined. They are simply the authors she happened to find and never let go. Two of them, Plotinus and Augustine, were the subjects of much of her academic career. Both the care she has taken to know them all the way down and the pleasure feels in doing so radiates from the pages. Plotinus’ vision of the universe as an interconnected whole became the foundation of her worldview. Augustine’s expansive treatment of beauty and love framed her juxtaposition of the perception of beauty with social responsibility.

The modern authors are an eclectic bunch. Carl Jung, whom she discovered before studying psychology in college (what didn’t this woman study?), remains a voice in her subconscious, teaching her to balance knowledge of self and knowledge of other. The poet Rilke inspired her to become a writer, even though she had to spite his sexism to appropriate his work. Leni Riefenstahl was the most gifted film producer during the Nazi era. Consumed with her aesthetic work, she ignored the reality that her work was being used for propaganda purposes.  She spent most of the rest of her life defending her actions. For Miles, she is a fantastically inspiring woman but also a cautionary tale of the potentially blinding love of beauty for beauty’s sake. Perhaps the best chapter of all is on Toni Morrison’s book Jazz, a story of grown-up love, of making grown-up love out of unlikely materials. Miles suggests that novels matter because they give us the concrete imagination necessary to make sense of the abstracts we assent to through philosophy books.

For Miles, reading is serious. It is pleasurable. It is serious because it is pleasurable. We construct ourselves in part through our imaginations, and reading expands and shapes the imagination. The aesthetic  sense is something that can be honed through practice. It is a conscious decision to be aware, to be porous. Reading is one way of honing our awareness, at first by taking note of what others have noticed. Miles, raised a Christian fundamentalist, has not forgotten the power of testimony. Her book is an impassioned recounting of her own journey through reading, and it poses to the reader the same question that every testimony does: Will you accept my story as somehow your own as well? Yes, Dr. Miles, I will. I will read not just for fun or for facts, but for life.

To Reading and Reviews

Published in: on April 2, 2012 at 8:30 am  Leave a Comment  

On Rereading Books

Rowan Williams meditates on how certain imaginative texts allow us to mature in their company:

Most of us over a certain age will recognise in our individual experience what it is to read a book at eighteen and then return to it twenty years later; as likely as not, we shall find it very different. Aspects of it will strike us as having passed unnoticed the first time; other aspects we may recognise as having unconsciously shaped our response to many other things. We read it perhaps with a sense of never having read it before, and at the same time as being more familiar than we had realised. The earlier reading has made things possible (including this second reading); the person who first read it is not there any longer, and cannot read a second time as if it were the first, but the person reading it the second time is one who has been changed, imperceptibly it may be, by that first reading. In the life of any individual, a book that is reread several times is one that both establishes itself as an intimate and familiar conversational partner, but which at every reading also conceals and reveals different things, opens different doors.

Books or dramas or music that allow us to mature in their company have a very particular role for us; because they are not exhausted by one reading or hearing, they tell us that there is more to be found, that we have a future with them which we cannot predict or control in full. What I am trying to articulate here is that sense of coming into a distinctive landscape that is given us by certain imaginative works; we know that they demand time if we are to ‘inhabit’ them properly. And in the context of the Church, this is what is being claimed about the texts of Scripture above all, but also about those further texts in which Scripture is fleshed out — the words and forms of worship, and that peculiar kind of text which is a Christlike life. These are the concrete form taken by God’s invitation to grow in his company; they are equally the promise of a future. (Why Study the Past?, 93-94)

Published in: on May 10, 2011 at 11:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Greek Project Finalized

Here is the finalized reading project. I figure a month is about the right time to commit to something new. We’ll see if a blog is a good format for this; if not, I’ll move to something like Google Groups. Anyway, I’m excited and grateful to know that there are people in this world who really want to read and discuss Greek.

Εν τͅη καρδιᾳ μου εκρυψα τα λογια σου ̔οπως αν μη ̔αμαρτω σοι (Ps. 118:11 LXX)

Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount)

Matt. 5:1-12  –  2/22

Matt. 5:13-20  –  2/25

Matt. 5:21-32 — 2/28

Matt 5:33-48 — 3/3

Matt. 6:1-15 — 3/6

Matt 6:16-24 — 3/9

Matt 6:25-34 — 3/12

Matt 7:1-12 — 3/15

Matt 7:13-29 — 3/19 (extra day for St. Patty’s and a long assignment)

Published in: on February 18, 2010 at 10:35 pm  Comments (2)  
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Greek NT Reading Partners

If you’re here, you probably already know about this, but just in case you don’t, a quick recap. I’m looking for people to form an online Greek NT reading and discussion group. Interested individuals sign up for projects, which are discrete portions of the GNT along with a set reading schedule. That way nobody has to make an indefinite commitment, and you can look at the project and schedule to decide if you want to be involved. My expectation would be that everyone who signs up for the project would be able to do most of the reading, and would participate in the discussion to whatever extent you feel comfortable, whether that’s asking lots of questions or making some observations.

A Proposed Project: Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount)

Matt. 5:1-12  —  2/22

Matt. 5:13-20  —  2/25

Matt. 5:21-32 — 2/28

Matt 5:33-48 — 3/3

Matt. 6:1-15 — 3/6

Matt 6:16-24 — 3/9

Matt 6:25-34 — 3/12

Matt 7:1-12 — 3/15

Matt 7:13-29 — 3/19 (extra day for St. Patty’s and a long assignment)

I’m open to suggestions both as to the project and the scheduling. I think this passage is medium difficulty. The scheduling as it stands is likely to be slow for advanced readers but challenging for anyone who isn’t in a habit of reading Greek. For those advanced readers, this passage presents some great opportunities for digging through both for OT and synoptic parallels.

Discussion: Anything that’s relevant is welcome. Grammar, syntax, parallels, theology, discourse analysis, text criticism, etc. It’s not expected that all the readers will be on the same page on all issues.

Text/Typing: I will be posting the NA27  text (BNT in Bibleworks). Greek should be posted in unicode. You can copy-paste from a unicode Bible here. In addition, you may want to install a Greek unicode keyboard on your computer so you can type in Greek. Instructions here. Also, be sure to visit this page for lots of useful Greek tools.

Signup: In the next few days, based on feedback, I will finalize the project and make a new post. You can sign up just by leaving a comment and subscribing to my blog. 😉

Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 9:14 am  Comments (3)  
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