The blog yesterday about my desk and what I thought was clutter, but which I’ve now learned was quite tidy, generated a question: How to mark the books I read? Well, that’s a good one because I’ve given it more thought than I should. Hope you have fun with this one.
First off, don’t mark library books or the books of others. I once loaned a book to a student who gave it back to me with considerable pride — and all beaten up and marked up. I don’t want others marking my books any more than I want them nibbling on my food in the kitchen of a restaurant.
Second, I learned long ago not to underline everything I was learning, but I learned this the hard way. My copies of George Ladd’s NT Theology and Herman Ridderbos’ Paul: An Outline of His Theology, which oddly enough I read before getting to seminary, are embarrassing now to read. In fact, I avoid looking at them because they are so marked up. Kris once remarked that I ought to underline what is “not important” so I’d use less pen.
Third, I avoid using a ruler — since it requires that I always have one, which I don’t. Learn to underline with a solid straight line without a ruler. This takes some practice, and it is very difficult on airplanes in turbulence or on trains or in cars, but more often than not I’m on stable land and can keep a pretty good straight line.
Fourth, and this is important to me, I always have a piece of paper — a small 4×6 or something about that size — in my book. At the top right I write the author’s name and I use the first line to write down the numbers of pages where I find things I really like and might want to quote. (Note to readers: I quote way too much and my great editor, Ms. Lil [red pen] Copan, has just about cured me of the itch to quote. Kevin Vanhoozer does this, too, but because I like good quotes, I like reading him.)
Fifth, I take notes but I don’t overdo it. Again, this from practice. I used to have a 3×5 card in each book and I summed up each chapter in a sentence or two at the end of each chapter’s reading. I quit doing this when I realized I wasn’t using the cards often enough. Nor do I take detailed notes, as it just clogs up my reading. All I do now is jot down notes on that single piece of paper, which very rarely becomes two pages — perhaps with an important book at the beginning of research for a new writing project.
Sixth, reading just for pleasure, which I don’t do as much as I’d like, leads me to the same practice, but I might jot down more random notes.
Seventh, remember what you’ve read. How’s that for a foolish imperative. No one remembers that much, so just try to remember what you can — of course, that’s just as foolish because no one really tries to forget, except certain political figures at opportune moments.
Eighth, if you don’t like a book don’t read it. Don’t give me this nonsense that your grade school teacher taught you to finish what you began. Not, I say to her or him now from my perch, if you don’t like the book. Nothing worse than having to read something; avoid that. If you find a book boring, find one that isn’t boring. I find those Russian novelists boring, and I’ll never again get numbed on some train across a wind-swept, frozen Siberian landscape so one of those writers can create me a sense of vastness and helplessness. If I want to feel helpless, I read Romans 2–3.
And this will limit the writers you read, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, it will lead you to cut back on some influential biblical scholars who have the capacity to write mind-numbing prose backed up with buckets of references and footnotes that show off everything they’ve read and don’t advance the argument — except to show that they’ve read the stuff. That’s a game we have to play sometime, but I pray for the days when scholars will learn to write engaging prose — and the best NT example of engaging and lovely prose I know of is C.H. Dodd and a close second is Tom Wright. I could mention others, but these are top of the list for me.
Remember this: a well-written book with bad arguments will have more influence than a poorly-written book with endless nuance and lifeless prose. Remember this too: lifeless prose comes from lifeless minds.
My good friend and legendary high school coach, Jim Panther, laughed endlessly about my A Light Among the Gentiles because of the number of footnotes. He used to say, “All you guys do is shuffle footnotes from one book to another.” He had a point. Somewhere someone taught us that lots of footnotes show how credible we should be. Ever read C.F.D. Moule? or G.B. Caird? or Morna Hooker? Delightful. The only way to read Hengel is with a beer in hand to take the edge off.
Now something dear to my heart: I underline with my fountain pens. I don’t know if one is supposed to do this, but I do — and that flexible nib and a few notes in the margins with a nice fountain pen makes reading just a tad more pleasurable. I blogged about fountain pens sometime back, and you can probably find it in the Writing category.