Mark Up, Mess Up, Beat Up Your Books

Yesterday, Trevin Wax and Tony Reinke talked about marking up books in their interview about Tony’s new book, Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books:

Trevin Wax: You recommend marking up books. Why?

Tony Reinke: I certainly do. So many Christians treat books as taskmasters. Most Christians have a stack of unfinished books in their house, maybe on a desk or a bookshelf. Those unfinished books are often a source of low-grade guilt. We’ve been conditioned to think that if we buy a book, we must read it from cover to cover. That’s not true, and I’m trying to loosen Christians from this misunderstanding of what is really a subtle form of slavery to books.

Apart from Scripture, all other books are optional reading. In fact, all other books are tools for us to use in our lives as we see fit. We use books when we need them. This means that we can read books cover to cover if we wish. Or we can read one chapter, or one page. It’s our call. By writing in a book, I claim the book as a tool. I own it; it belongs to me; it was purchased to serve me, and its value to me as a tool far exceeds its resale value. This does not give me license to ignore the truth God teaches me in my reading, but it does liberate me to see books as gifts from God, not as taskmasters. And that’s a very important stage of development for Christian readers.

Of course, I mark all sorts of things in my books, but fundamentally it is a claim of ownership, a claim that reminds me that my books are my tools and that I am not enslaved to them.

Reading this made my day. When I’m reading a book, the worst thing I can do is NOT have a pen in hand. I wind up forgetting most of what I’ve read if I’m not interacting with the material—making notes, asking questions, underlining… It’s fun to have my own ongoing commentary with a book. There has even been at least one book where I’ve ended up crossing out entire pages because the content was utter nonsense.

But rather than just talk about what I do when I mark up a book, I thought I might show you (I know, it’s ridiculous, but it’s Friday!)—check it out:

From my very well-worn copy of What is Reformed Theology?: Understanding the Basics

Some of my commentary in Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care

A couple of notes from Church Planter: The Man, the Message, the Mission

So that’s what a typical book on my shelf looks like. They tend to be marked up, messed up and beat up. And if I didn’t care enough to mark up a book, then it wasn’t actually worth my time reading it.

Question: Do you mark up your books? Why or why not? 

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.

Reader interactions

10 Replies to “Mark Up, Mess Up, Beat Up Your Books”

  1. Michelle Dacus Lesley May 17, 2014 at 10:48 pm

    I believe in this so much that the book I wrote has space at the end of each chapter for writing notes :0)

  2. I’m like you – I just have to have a pen or highlighter handy whenever I’m reading, even often if it’s fiction. (I think that comes from my days as an English major.) My husband has watched me reading and asked, “What are you highlighting?” Since I started my blog last year (which is all about books), I also keep a journal with the books I’m currently reading so I can jot down notes, quotes and page numbers for later reference. I like to interact with the text and feel it helps me to pay closer attention to what I’m reading. And if I come across something that ties in with something I read earlier I can flip back and refer to it again more easily.

  3. I mark up my books all the time… and draw butterflies in them,especially on a page that spoke to me personally. This makes the book mine! I also write down friends first names when a sentence or paragraph reminds me of a pweson. This is what books are for….except if they are loners….

  4. There’s one reason I don’t mark up my books: I don’t want to influence future-me.  If I think there’s a good chance I’ll read/consult the book again in the future, I don’t like to mark it.  I still take notes and interact with what I’m reading, just on separate paper or on the laptop.  If I come back to a book years later, I might discover something new that I had passed over before, or even have a totally different perspective on something I had “highlighted” on a previous reading.  
    Making good notes is essential to getting the most out of a good book, but I find this allows me to have those notes without steering myself or others on future readings.

    I’ll second mrben about Kindle/ebooks; it makes the process so much easier, since the notes can be hidden/displayed so easily.  
    btw: picked up some great books from the other post.  Thanks so much for the info! 

  5. I rarely mark in my books.  The good ones will be given away or passed on to my kids, and marking them up is bad stewardship, in my opinion (though I don’t hold it against anyone who does mark their books).

    I have a couple of bibles that I mark in (mostly questions I want answered), though I am mostly transitioning this process to Logos4.

    I have a handful of very important books that I’ve marked up, planning to pass them on to my kids someday, with a knowledge (to them) of what I found important or noteworthy.

    My wife, on the other hand, leaves a book looking like a four-year-old has scribbled it up.  So, to each his (or her) own!

  6. I couldn’t agree more. It excites me when a book has content worthy of marking up. I use symbols and colors to mark my Bible as I study inductively and have started doing this as I read other books. They all bristle with sticky notes like feathers and squares of paper I stick in to write notes I want to transfer to a quote journal or keep my Bible.

  7. Becky Daily On My Way to Heave November 4, 2011 at 8:23 am

    I LOVE marking my books. I interact with the author in a sense, by asking questions and adding my thoughts to the idea he gives. I like to write how the Lord is challenging me, and some times I will write a short prayer. I want to make books mine.

    Why do I do this? Because I want, first, to be able to come back and easily find what I am looking for in a text; and second, because I want my children and my children’s children to read the same books I have read and see what mt thoughts are.

    And unlike mrben, the one big thing I don’t like about my Kindle is that I cannnot actually write my own thoughts, with my own handwriting; but I am waiting, I am sure there will make a change in a few years… 🙂

  8. OK. Here’s a weird thing. One of the reasons I like e-books is because you can mark them up without marking them. I have this real problem with writing on books – I think it’s something that’s distilled in you from an early age. 

    Maybe I need to break out of this, and start marking more!

    1. It’s funny, I always used to keep my books in pristine condition—I’d do my best to avoid even cracking the spine. If past me saw one of my current books, he’d probably lose his mind. 

      1. ME too! And I am passing Mark Up, Mess Up, Beat Up Your Books to friends who do this and friends who don’t. Hmmm, as I reread the title I have only truly passed the Mark Up stage and I have a long way to go. In fact if I mark up too much in my perspective I feel as if I need to start over and buy a new Bible.

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