Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Today’s question for episode 2001 is a book question from me, Pastor John. We like to talk books on this podcast, and in past episodes we’ve looked at seven ways books have changed your life. That testimonial was APJ 707. We’ve also talked about how 1 percent of book-insights make reading the other 99 percent worth it. That was APJ 1910. Classic point. More recently, we looked at ten of your favorite authors who write to edify the soul. That was APJ 1972.

Now, speaking of your library, I recently paged through your copy of Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book while working on my APJ book about this podcast, which comes out in February. More on that later, but as I was writing the introduction to my book, I found it instructive to see what sentences you underlined in Adler’s book, what sections you marked up, and how you jotted down notes in the front and back of the book. I noticed that you made something of your own index to your discoveries. Can you walk us through your book-marking strategy? When did you start the practice? Why do you do it? What types of marginalia are you adding to your books? And of course we all want to know: pencil or pen?

The answer is pencil, and there are reasons. I use a mechanical pencil so that it never goes dull, 0.5 millimeters. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book is one of the very few books that I have read twice. Your mentioning it gives me a good opportunity to sound a warning to people who are going to ask me or others this question: the way a person underlined and wrote in a book — whether in the margins, indexes, or whatever — twenty or forty years ago may be very different from what he does today.

That certainly is the case with me. I am amazed when I look back on how many books I read, say, thirty or forty years ago that don’t have any of my own indexing in the front flaps, because today that is the dominant way for me to keep track of insights and enjoyments that I’m getting from the book.

Handmade Indexes

By “indexing” (that’s not a very accurate phrase, and I wish I had a better one), I mean simply jotting down, with a pencil in tiny handwriting, a very short three- to eight-word description or pointer in the front flap of the book. I write about what I have read in the book, along with the page number. Sometimes I have to weave it around what’s already there. In a short book, there may be anywhere from 30 of these up to, say, 150 or more of these little notes in the flap of the book at the front or, if I have to, in the back.

“I don’t just read for pleasure. I read for a pleasure that spills over on other people.”

I think the reason I didn’t do this in the early days — and my memory’s not good, so I may be wrong — might be that I wasn’t thinking primarily of reading for the sake of writing, or reading for the sake of preaching, or reading for the sake of systematic increase of understanding of particular truths, or reading for the sake of discovery and preservation of some striking and compelling way of saying something, all of which is what I’m so keyed into now.

So now, virtually every book I read — and I’m talking print books, not electronic (which I hardly ever do) or audio (which I do all the time). I’m talking about the books I’m going through all the time, the ones sitting on my chairs. I’m always reading something in print. That’s what I do. And all these books — I index them.

Even fiction. People say, “Oh, you’re kidding me. You read a novel with a pencil in your hand?” Yes, I do. I can’t read without a pencil in my hand. I’m not going to spend time reading, even fiction, if there is no life-giving insight or striking expression of reality worth preserving. Seriously, I don’t just read for pleasure. I read for a pleasure that spills over on other people, because that’s the biggest pleasure. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

I read too slowly, and my life is too short, to read without the hope that what I’m reading will help me to think more clearly, to feel more fully, and to express more compellingly the glories of God in the word and in the world — and all of that is worth preserving in some way. It has been good to discover this about myself.

Reading Like a Teacher

I don’t presume, by the way, to suggest that everyone should be like this, but I realized along the way that my built-in, God-given impulse, my dominant impulse, is not to read, but to write and speak. To say it more generally, my bent is not to take in what others have created, but to be a creator. That’s just my bent. I want to make something new, usually with words, which means that all of my intake increasingly has become fuel for my own creation — for sermons, articles, books, poems, and devotions.

Now, I know this can be dangerous. There’s a big yellow flag here. I warned my students at Bethlehem College & Seminary, “Do not read the Bible in the morning just in order to produce a sermon on Sunday. Christ is glorious and precious and to be trusted in the very last hours of our lives when we can do nothing with his beauty but enjoy it on our way into heaven.” Yes and amen. So, don’t just be a user. Be an enjoyer of what you read. Savor it. Love it. Exult in it.

However, I believe that one of the evidences of the spiritual gift of teaching is that a person can scarcely prevent his mind from taking everything he reads and instinctively, without even trying, asking himself, “How would I say this? How would I say this in my own words? How would I explain this to other people? How would I illustrate it and live it? How does it fit into the framework of my own thought — or does it? Do I need to change my framework?”

This is why I not only index my books, but I keep a little field notebook (that I buy in packs of five from Amazon) beside my chair on my desk. This way, when I get a thought or an idea that stirs me up to think out my own train of thought, I have a place to put it. I have a place to write it down quickly.

There’s something about the mind of a teacher that can’t just hear things or read things and leave them. He’s got to do something with it. So, you can see what a huge impact that’s going to have on how I mark up my books.

Three Things to Index

Now, what goes into those indexes? Here are just a few thoughts.

One: fresh insights into my life or into life in general. My index for a biography of C.S. Lewis, for example, which I just took down from the shelf, has a notation at the front, from page xxiii, where he said, “Without self-forgetfulness, there can be no delight.” That got three asterisks in the margin. It got a notation in the front flap, and I’ve been thinking about it for twenty years. I mean, if that’s true, what an agenda for those of us who are pursuing delight in life. So, fresh insights — we mark them, we note them, we meditate on them, we try to grow into them.

Two: raw facts. If I’m reading a biography, and if I know I’ve got to give a talk about it, or if I want to use it in a devotion, I want to be able to spot birth, conversion, marriage, employment, controversies, death, and impact. That way, when I run my eyes down the front flap, I can get an outline of his life, and quick. I don’t have to go researching all over the place and say, “Now, when did he die? When was he born? When was he converted? When did he get married?”

“Pay attention, be engaged, be an active reader — even if you will never look at these pages again.”

Three: great illustrations, ones that might be useful to giving a striking impression of a viewpoint, even a viewpoint we disagree with. For example, I’m reading a book right now called Biblical Critical Theory. I’m about two hundred pages into it, and on page 196, I wrote a little index in the front about Jean-Paul Sartre on atheism. He said, “Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or without outside himself.” That’s a quote.

Now, I thought, that’s a serious confession from an atheist. It’s out of his mouth, it’s footnoted, and it’s tragic. It’s just tragic, and it will probably make its way into some sermon, article, or book someday. (Though I don’t mean to give the impression, with this idea of indexing, that that’s all I do. I do underline, and I still make comments in the margin, ones like “great” or “baloney.”)

Why Annotate

And yes, I use a pencil, not a pen. Here’s what happened. About thirty years ago, I took a box of used books to Loome Bookstore in Stillwater, Minnesota, to sell them. They would not even look at the books that had marginalia in ink. It was a principle. It was a law. I don’t know all the reasons for it, but that’s one reason.

My main reason is that I am fallible. I make mistakes. I want to go back and erase the word “baloney” because two pages later he explains himself, and I was wrong. It’s not baloney. I don’t want to memorialize my mistake with a pen.

One of the main functions of underlining and marking in the margins is simply to help me pay attention. That’s the big reason for underlining, for me anyway, and for putting notes in the margin: pay attention, be engaged, be an active reader — even if you will never look at these pages again (which is true for most of the pages that I read).

So, I think the main takeaway from this episode, Tony, is this: Know why you read. Know what you are reading right now. Then adapt your markings to fit your purpose.