Library as leverage

There are two groups of people when it comes to marking up books:

  1. People who like to keep their books pristine and do not mark or highlight in them at all.
  2. People who mark up their books.

I am firmly in the latter camp, and I have a loose system for jotting down notes, underlining, bracketing, and starring different sections of text. I use a pencil because I like being able to adjust my marks or revise my comments if necessary. I’ve followed this practice since my college days, which were a decade ago, and now I have lots and lots of marginalia archived for reference.

But during this past year, my books were boxed up for about six months during a series of transitional moves until we moved into our current home. When I finally got to unpack my books, it felt like going to a family reunion, the kind where you reconnect with a lot of people that you have fun memories with but haven’t seen in a long long time. You swap stories, share notes, and reminisce together. You laugh together and talk some real talk. The whole experience brings out memories and thoughts and ideas in you that you almost forgot you had and it just feels so right. I know it sounds very sappy and Hallmark movie-esque, but that’s what it felt like.

I started flipping through some of my books as I unboxed them, and I quickly realized how much I had missed being able to simply pick a book off the shelf and hunt for something that I probably marked. There’s lots of great information online. There’s no shortage of articles, essays, think pieces, forums, and YouTube videos for just about every topic imaginable, but there’s some thing special about the format of a book.

Books support random access, which is the ability to flip two pages at random and scan ideas. I can open up any of my books, flip to any chapter, and find sections that stood out to me simply because I took the time to underline or bracket something. I don’t just read for pleasure (although I do enjoy reading), I read to learn and grow. Books are tools to that end, and marking them up makes them more useful over time.

Not having access to my books for six months taught me that my library isn’t just a mausoleum of information, but a tool that I actively use.

I can’t claim that I’ve read everything on my bookshelf. There are lots of books I hope to read one day, and others that are purely for reference. But I can say that I’ve built a library that works for me. The value of my library lies not in the accumulation of books, but in the interplay of the the sections that I have marked for later reference, and the interplay between the ideas represented across the books on my shelf.

Al Mohler says, “When you read, you are putting investments in a bank from which to draw, even if it doesn’t appear to have direct relevance.”1Matt Perman, What’s Best next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done, Expanded edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 216. A lot of times, when I’m highlighting things it means they stick out to me in the moment, but it often happens that those ideas become relevant weeks, months, and sometimes years later. That’s drawing from the bank. There are many times when I’m thinking through a problem, and I’ll pick up a book on my shelf and just flip through the pages. Those past reads spur new ideas or clearer thinking, or it helps me remember an approach or methodology that I had previously forgotten. And suddenly I have new perspective on the problem at hand.

I believe that books are meant to be read, but also consumed. Putting your mark on the pages enhances the tool and makes it more useful today, tomorrow, and many tomorrows after that. In this way, the library is leverage for solving gnarly problems. It’s good to read, and it’s best if the act of reading continues to pay dividends.

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    Matt Perman, What’s Best next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done, Expanded edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 216.
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