Back in college, I always enjoyed the little craft tips professors and teachers would give you. For example, a philosophy TA I had once said that you have to work hard to maintain that naive curiosity about everything when you’re studying so that you make sure to question the little things that come along. Not question them as some way of baby-boomer armchair-rebellion, but as a spring-board for ideas, paper topics, and just general understanding of things.
One of the other tips which I use equally as much was from one of my English professors, as I recall, Professor Newton. The first day in class – Victorian Literature – in brought in a book he was currently reading and held it up, pointing out all the underlines and marginalia he had in it. He said something like: don’t be afraid to write in your books. Just rip them up, he said, write all over them.
Until then, I’d always thought of books as sort of untouchable but by the eyes for reading. But, to me, what Newton was saying was to look at a book as more of a tool rather than something in a display case. A tool get used for a purpose, to an end, and you don’t spend a lot of time making sure it looks pristine. Well, some people do, but a box full of clean tools usually means they don’t get used, or you’re a little OCD.
I don’t write in books as much as I used to in college. To be frank, I don’t use books as much as much as I did back then: now they internet is my bookshelf, if you will. That said, as the Seth Godin book above shows, there’s still plenty of use for those tools.
To start with, it’s always good to bottom dog-ear pages that have something interesting on them, hopefully underlining or side-lining the parts that are good. I mean, you’ll probably want to look things up again. Another nice effect of the bottom dog-ear (that is, putting a dog-ear at the bottom of the page, rather than the top) is that you can quickly look at a closed book and get a sense for how interesting it was to you: presumably, the more bottom dog-ears, the more interesting.
In the more fun category is putting what the date you started reading a book and where you were on the title page. I also write my name right above that which has made it easier to claim books I’ve lost. Sometime I’ll write a little note about what I was doing (like which conference I was going to or anything else interesting going on) too. Even less frequently, I’ll write the date I finished the book, but that can get a bit depressing.
When you’re trying to decipher an especially opaque train of thought – as was often the case in the philosophy books I read in school – I like to keep track of the argument being made with little summaries on the page. If things get especially obtuse, you can write little numbered items to refer back and forward to.
Also, if you’re going to go totally nutty and just use the white space in books as paper. When I just had a book and a pen around (on a plane) I’ve written letters with those blank pages at the end of books.