Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Should I take notes while reading books?

One thing I've found myself wondering about lately and now try to express in writing is what type of approach I should take in reading books. Specifically, I wonder if I should be taking notes, or notating pages or making more of an effort in marking or identifying passages that catch my interest somehow, or if I should continue just to read the pages and not leave marks all over them.

Currently, I simply read the book and occasionally remark or think to myself "wow, that's a good point."  I do also rarely dog-ear certain pages, but even if I do that I'll sometimes go back to that section and question which page I was marking - the one that the corner is folded down on, or the one it's folded away from. It's also sometimes a challenge to find which passage I wanted to note or remember.

With this in mind, especially since I sometimes do book reviews for this blog and have found myself enjoying that challenge, I ask myself if I should do more than a rare fold in the corner of a page. Should I keep a pen handy to underline certain lines or to put notes in the margins? Will that benefit me at all? Will it cause harm to the book, perhaps in resale value (though I have no intentions at all of ever selling any of my collection, so why do I wonder about this)? Will it help or hurt if I re-read a book (though, again, I have not gone back and re-read any of the books I have, so why would this be a consideration)?

I have taken that approach in one book, a paperback copy of Look Away by William C. Davis, While reading it (long before I started this blog or did any formal book review) I found a lot of fascinating comments and observations, often about "states' rights" or something similar. 

The issue, though, is that I have never gone back to that book to review those notes or markings, so what good did it do me? Perhaps I have a slightly better memory of the topics in that book, but is that much of a benefit?

Part of the issue is related to a blog entry I made last year in which I wondered how to label myself in regards to my enjoyment and learning of the Civil War. Buff? Historian? Enthusiast? Student?  I'm not sure I know the answer to that yet, or how much it really matters, but it seems like if I'm going to try to be a serious student, or even a historian of some sort, I need to take a serious approach to my reading, and is making these kind of notes part of that approach? Would such notes make my book reviews better or more credible or would it help my understanding of the subjects or of the war itself?

Since I do now express my thoughts publicly on this blog, and sometimes use this as a forum to critique the work various authors do, I believe I do owe it to my readers and myself to make a serious attempt at expressing my thoughts and not just type out words just to kill time or fill bandwidth. 

I really do enjoy reading about the Civil War, especially when the book is really good, like the last couple I read General Lee's Army and Forged in Battle, both by Joseph Glatthaar, but would making notes and comments on the pages of these volumes enhance my experience? Would it increase my understanding of the book, or improve how well I remember it as time passes?

On the side of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," I make no pretense about being a professional historian or scholar, and am not sure I want to be at that level, so why would I need to take such a scholarly approach while reading books? Cannot I enjoy them and learn from them without covering the pages in ink-drawn lines and notes? I think I can, but something inside of me, deep in my conscience, seems to be telling me I need to do more. This is a nagging feeling that I can't quite shake.

Please forgive me if  this entry seems a bit too self-serving, but among my goals for this blog is to explore myself and how/why I enjoy the Civil War so much. How I read and understand the books I read may help me find out more about this obsession and the enjoyment it brings me.

I just wonder how others approach books they read and if I am a bit out of the norm among those who really enjoy the Civil War.


  1. This post isn't self-serving at all! I sometimes wonder as well if I should be reading just for enjoyment and casual learning, or whether I should be making more of an effort to "study" a book. When I was a kid (middle/high school), I used to take tons of notes on every Civil War book I read, but would take those notes on separate sheets of paper. I have thought about starting something similar in my adult life, only this time with my laptop next to me. Perhaps you could do something like this as opposed to marking up your book collection. (I hate the idea of "destroying" a book with notations.) Of course, a compromise to taking notes all the time would be to do so when you are reading a book specifically with a research interest or goal in mind. I think I may take this approach myself, but am pressed for time between work and family, so have yet to do so!


  2. Thank you. That is a good idea about only taking notes when I'm reading for research.

    I've also thought about using post-it notes or maybe just keep 1 small sheet of paper in the front dust jacket & list interesting pages or comments on it.

    I'm glad I'm not the only one thinking about stuff like that :)


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