Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Marginalia: Writing in one's books

I've done it for a long time now, shocking behavior though it is to some of my family and friends.

WHY I make notes

Some of my family members and friends are shocked that I write in my books. The reasons to keep the books in pristine condition vary from maintaining resale value (not an issue for me, as I don't think of books as transient presences in my life) to keeping the integrity of the author's work. Obviously, if I had a first edition of Newton's Principia, I wouldn't write on in; the books I write on are workaday copies, many of them cheap paperbacks or technical books.

The reason why I makes notes is threefold:

To better understand the book as I read it. Actively reading a book, especially a non-fiction or work book, is essentially a dialog between the book and the knowledge I can access, both in my mind and in outside references. Deciding what is important enough to highlight and what points deserve further elaboration in the form of commentary or an example that I furnish, makes reading a much more immersive experience than simply processing the words.

To collect my ideas from several readings (I read many books more than once) into a place where they are not lost. Sometimes points from a previous reading are more clarifying to me than the text itself, sometimes I disagree vehemently with what I wrote before.

To refer to later when I need to find something in the book. This is particularly important in books that I read for work, in particular for technical books where many of the details have been left out (for space reasons) but I added notes that fill those in for the parts I care about.

WHAT types of notes I make

In an earlier post about marginalia on my personal blog I included this image (click for bigger),

For blog post

showing some notes I made while reading the book Living With Complexity, by Donald Norman. These notes fell into six cases:

Summaries of the arguments in text. Often texts will take long circuitous routes to get to the point. (Norman's book is not one of these.) I tend to write quick summaries, usually in implication form like the one above, that cut down the entropy.

My examples to complement the text. Sometimes I happen to know better examples, or examples that I prefer, than those in the book; in that case I tend to note them in the book so that the example is always connected to the context in which I thought of it. This is particularly useful in work books (and papers, of course) when I turn them into teaching or executive education materials.

Comparisons with external materials. In this case I make a note to compare Norman's point about default choices with the problems Facebook faced in similar matters regarding its privacy.

Notable passages. Marking funny passages with smiley faces and surprising passages with an exclamation point helps find these when browsing the book quickly. Occasionally I also mark passages for style or felicitous turn of phrase, typically with "nice!" on the margin.

Personal commentary. Sometimes the text provokes some reaction that I think is work recording in the book. I don't write review-like commentary in books as a general rule, but I might note something about missing or hidden assumptions, innumeracy, biases, statistical issues; I might also comment positively on an idea, for example, that I had never thought of except for the text.

Quotable passages. These are self-explanatory and particularly easy to make on eBooks. Here's one from George Orwell's Homage To Catalonia:
The constant come-and-go of troops had reduced the village to a state of unspeakable filth. It did not possess and never had possessed such a thing as a lavatory or a drain of any kind, and there was not a square yard anywhere where you could tread without watching your step. (Chapter 2.)

A few other types of marginalia that I have used in other books:

Proofs and analysis to complement what's in the text. As an example, in a PNAS paper on predictions based on search, the authors call $\log(y) = \beta_0 + \beta_1 \log(x)$ a linear model, with the logarithms used to account for the skewness of the variables. I inserted a note that this is clearly a power law relationship, not a linear relationship, with the two steps of algebra that show $y = e^{\beta_0} \times x^{\beta_1}$, in case I happen to be distracted when I reread this paper and can't think through the baby math.

Adding missing references or checking the references (which sometime are incorrect, in which case I correct them). Yep, I'm an academic nerd at heart; but these are important, like a chain of custody for evidence or the provenance records for a work of art.

Diagrams clarifying complicated points. I do this in part because I like visual thinking and in part because if I ever need to present the material to an audience I'll have a starting point for visual support design.

Data that complements the text. Sometimes the text is dequantized and refers to a story for which data is available. I find that adding the data to the story helps me get a better perspective and also if I ever want to use the story I'll have the data there to make a better case.

Counter-arguments. Sometimes I disagree with the text, or at least with the lack of feasible counter-arguments (even when I agree with a position I don't like that the author presents the opposing points of view only in strawman form), so I write the counter-arguments in order to remind me that they exist and the presentation in the text doesn't do them justice.

Markers for things that I want to get. For example, while reading Ted Gioia's The History of Jazz, I marked several recordings that he mentions for acquisition; when reading technical papers I tend to mark the references I want to check; when reading reviews I tend to add things to wishlists (though I also prune these wishlists often).

HOW to make notes

A few practical points for writing marginalia:

Highlighters are not good for long-term notes. They either darken significantly, making it hard to read the highlighted text, or they fade, losing the highlight. I prefer underlining with a high contrast color for short sentences or segments or marking beginning and end of passages on the margin.

Margins are not the only place. I add free-standing inserts, usually in the form of large Post-Its or pieces of paper. Important management tip: write the page number the note refers to on the note.

Transcribing important notes to a searchable format (a text file on my laptop) makes it easy to find stuff later. This is one of the advantages of eBooks of the various types (Kindle, iBook, O'Reilly PDFs), making it easy to search notes and highlights.

Keeping a commonplace book of felicitous turns of phrase (the ones in the books and the ones I come up with) either in a file or on an old-style paper journal helps me become a better writer.

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Note: This blog may become a little more varied in topics as I decided to write posts more often to practice writing for a general audience. After all, the best way to become a better writer is to write and let others see it. (No comments on the blog, but plenty of ones by email from people I know.)