I’m assuming that you know how to read. I mean, you’re reading this so it seems like a pretty fair bet so it doesn’t make a lot of sense that I would be trying to teach you how to read, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to teach you how to read a book. Well, that’s sort of a lie. I’m going to teach you one trick that will make reading a book more helpful and useful and powerful. Let’s talk about what a book is.

There’s a relatively famous educational philosopher, Mortimer J. Adler, who says that, “books are a conversation between you and the author.” It’s an interesting way to look at things. When we look at the history of literature, a lot of it focuses on letters written by famous authors to their spouses, lovers, friends, enemies, kings and queens and everyone in between. Adler goes on to say that we treat books like that conversation is a one-sided conversation. Essentially, reading a book is a lot like getting yelled at. You just sort of sit there and take it. Think back to the last time your parents (or in my case, spouse) yelled at you because you did something wrong. You probably just sat there and took it, even when they inevitable time came for them to say, “well, do you have anything to say for yourself?”

What Adler argues for, and what I’ve learned a lot from, is that there is an opportunity to carry out the other side of that conversation. There is a chance that we can communicate back to the author even if there is little to no chance of them ever hearing what you have to say. When I first heard this idea, I was taken aback. I literally gasped (figuratively) and thought that I could never, ever in a million years do this. But now I always do it and when people borrow my books, I encourage them to do the same. It’s time to start writing in books.

Writing in a book is a way for you to carry on a conversation with the author. You get to ask questions, make points, ask for clarification and even though the author will never read your comments (assuming you aren’t Kathy Batesing them, Misery style) there is a certain value in that conversation. It makes YOU think about things on another level. But the very past part is what happens if and when you lend those books out to others and give them the same instructions.

The person who reads both the authors words and yours gets to see the dynamic, the conversation that exists between you and the author. It deepens their experience of the book and allows them to think about things they otherwise may not have considered. And if they then write in the book, when you get it back and read it again (there are books I’ve read more than a dozen times) then you get to consider their thoughts as well. It’s like a book club contained within the pages.

A few tips about doing this;

  1. Try to keep it in the margins. Don’t write over the author’s words except for maybe underlining. You want to give each reader the chance to experience the author’s words in full.
  2. Use pencil. This keeps it neat. With pen, if you make a mistake or your words aren’t clear, it makes a mess.
  3. Get permission. Make sure you don’t just start writing in books all willy nilly. Only do this with people who’s permission you have.
  4. Non-fiction only. Honestly, unless the book is some sort of transformative tome like Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, this really works with non-fiction, books that you have thoughts about, not just “oh man, can you believe it was the butler…”
  5. Share this idea. Tell your friends, colleagues, peers and family about this, especially if you share books with them.

My experience of reading books has changed dramatically since I’ve adopted this method. It is a unique way to get even more from reading, something I never thought possible. And if we’re lucky, really really lucky, people will read again.