How to Absorb a Book into Your Bloodstream

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Just in case you were beginning to mistake me for a methamphetamine addict who blazes through books, I thought I’d write a post to correct that picture in your mind.

In fact, I want to convince you of one of the most important rules when it comes to reading.

I want to show you why absorbing a book into your bloodstream is a good thing.

And I want to show you that unless you do this, you’re likely missing out on the best kind of reading. Let me show you what I mean.

Mutilating the Garden

Now, what I’m about to say might make you grit your teeth. Clench your fist. Pick up a crow bar.

You might compare my idea to a suggestion we rip out the chrysanthemums from your garden. Uproot the lemongrass, lavender or tarragon. Or pluck your prize-winning cherry tree out with a winch hitched to a pick up.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. So relax.

3 Kinds of Book Owners

There are book owners who buy and never read. They worship the bestseller. They adore the elegant binding and pristine paper of a collector’s edition set. These book lovers are marked not so much by intelligence but by wealth.

Then there’s the book owner who buys but seldom reads every page of a book. More likely flirts with a few pages before setting a volume down. Like the first, his books look brand new ten years after he bought them.

Then there’s the book owner who owns a small shelf collapsing under the weight of stained, dog-eared, loose in the binding and, most importantly, scrawled-in-from-front-to-back books.

It’s that last reader who absorbs a book into his bloodstream. And it’s that last reader who I want to convince you to become.

5 Good Reasons to Write in a Book

Writing in a book isn’t a magical act. And it isn’t like destroying a garden. But it is a symbol that you’ve crossed over from owning a book to actually absorbing a book. Mortimer J. Alder compares it to buying a steak versus eating the steak…

Until it’s in your bloodstream, you’re simply keeping it cool. And until you write in a book, you don’t own it. You’re just babysitting.

So, before I give you ideas on how to mark a book up, let me show you why writing thoughtfully in your books is a good idea.

Here are five reasons:

1. Activates your mind. 

Instead of being a participant who merely sits back and tries to acknowledge everything that comes at him, the mind leans forward and starts to interrogate.

2. Marks your territory. 

Disgusting, but think dog, urine, fire hydrant. Going back to a book two years later after you marked it up can be so entertaining: You get to explore your thoughts, moods and passions from the past. It’s an intellectual diary.

3. Establishes a footprint.

Your scribble marks in a book tell you what ground you’ve covered in a half-read book. And they help you recall ideas and concepts you’ve read if you’re going in for a second time.

4. Teaches you how to write. 

After picking apart a chapter, you naturally start to absorb that writer’s style. Important if you’re an emerging author.

5. Exposes the intangible. 

Marking up a book uncovers the writer’s patterns, styles and meaning…much like an archaeologist meticulously dusting debris away from a ceramic pot buried three thousand years ago sees the design.

How Does This Approach Differ from Speed Reading?

Are you kidding me? It’s the difference between a dog swallowing a burrito versus a caterpillar systematically nibbling away at a leaf.

One’s fast. One’s slow. And one is better.

You drill through a newspaper in 15 minutes…devour a magazine in an hour…claw your way through a Kellerman in a night because these are light, superficial readings.

On the other hand, you linger on the poems of John Donne. John Owen’s Mortification of Sin in Believers. Repeatedly grind a rut with a pencil into the first four pages of Ulysses. And laboriously fill the margins of a chapter like “April Seventh, 1928” with notes.

Why Go Through All This Trouble?

The point of writing in a good book is NOT to see how many you can get through. The point is to see how many get through to you. How many you absorb into your blood.

And one of the best ways to do that is to write in it. Let me give you some obvious and no-so-obvious tips on how to do just that.

10 Tips on How to Write in a Book

1. Circle interesting words.

2. Underline interesting sentences.

3. Write questions or comments in the margin.

4. Draw arrows from the notes in the margin to the section of book the note refers to.

5. Record the page number where an idea is repeated.

6. Summarize each chapter on the blank page in between chapters.

7. Create an outline of the book on blank pages in the front of the book.

8. Summarize the main idea of the book in the blank pages at the back.

9. Summarize some of the supporting ideas.

10. Create an index of topics, books or ideas for future exploration.

If I’ve failed to convince you of writing in a book, at least use a scrap of paper to write on. A scrap of paper you keep in the book.

Your Turn

Writing in books: Good or bad? Easy or hard for you? What tricks do you use to mark up your books? Anything I didn’t mention? Looking forward to your thoughts.


  1. Katherine Bates says

    I liked this a lot — and it will be very helpful to me going forward. I don’t think I’d do the summarizing though. I have a really day-dreamy, lazy side that I have to placate and coax to engage with material from a place of intellectual rigor, and I would find that an onerous task.

    I love the suggestions of underlining fascinating sentences & writing questions or comments in the margin, and I would very much appreciate establishing a footprint in books that I read. My life is so insanely busy right now that I keep coming back after weeks of hiatus to “Israel Is Real,” an excellent book by Rich Cohen, and wondering how far exactly I’ve read. I can’t seem to remember a damn thing or what I thought about any of it!

    I think it might be helpful for me to engage creatively with the material I’m reading — either free-writing after a chapter, or perhaps writing a sonnet and stapling it into the book? INTJ, meet INFP. 😉

  2. says

    Love this advice. Ever since I got my Kindle, I’ve slowly been experimenting with highlighting and writing notes (I never did in physical books cause I always felt like I was messing up something pristine…but not a problem with digital!)

    But marking my books has really made a difference in my whole reading experience. It really becomes more of a dialogue, a 2 way conversation. The book will throw some ideas at me and I’ll respond. And that’s a world of difference from just tearing through a book. Instead of just idly consuming, you actively participate and create and experience with the book. Way more kickass.

    • says

      I was always curious on how someone manages to take notes in the Kindle. Is it easy? That’s probably my number one hesitation. Beside spending money, which I hate to do. 😉

      • says

        Oh don’t even get me started on my love for the Kindle. I won’t shut up about it :)

        Hilighting with the Kindle is super easy and convenient. Taking notes is a little more cumbersome with the awkward keyboard, but it still works for me. I’m a slow (and MESSY) writer anyways, so writing with the Kindle doesn’t bother me too much.

        I wrote a whole long blog post about why I love my Kindle so much if you’re interested, but if you’re looking to hold onto your money, maybe we should just switch topics lol

        • says

          Maybe I just need to get used to writing notes in a plain old notebook…which I have to do with library books since I can’t defame them. I like the convenience of having lots of books at my disposal. I’ll hunt down your post. Thanks! 😉

  3. Lisa Giordano says

    “Going back to a book two years later after you marked it up can be so entertaining…”
    Yes, though I’ve always felt strangely shameful about it. It’s good to know you approve of such behavior, Demian!

  4. says

    I love writing and highlighting in my books. If I fill up the margins too much I grab some post-its and gradually transform it into a lovely and colorful mess.

    Something you didn’t mention: Smelling books is also a must! :)

  5. Becca says

    Personally, writing in fiction = abomination, writing in nonfiction = standard practice. No idea why I feel like that about it! But with the advent of Kindle (which I’m a huge fan of *waits for stoning*) I’ve found the making notes option to be fascinating in fiction books. Perhaps I’m on the road to book marking enlightnement.

    Incidently, I write notes on scripts ALL THE TIME because otherwise how does one get anything done?

  6. Becca says

    Hmm mostly comparing the script to the finished film and noting where changes happened, what was added or cut and what effects it had, things like that. All in the interests of becoming a better screenwriter :)

  7. efsun says

    i used to always write in my books. i love that when i look through them years later i can see what i was thinking at that time, kind of like a journal. the downside is that when i lend my books to friends, it’s like giving them my journal… far more personal information than i’d like to share (this is where the kindle sounds so attractive).

    i’ve since switched to keeping a notebook to record nteresting quotes or thoughts. i suppose i could just refuse my friends’ requests to borrow my books, but that runs counter to my belief that a good read should be shared.

  8. says

    Really enjoyed this!

    I purchased an old book a while back (for only 90 cents) by David Pryde. It’s a book that’s been edited, and re-edited several times over. The copy I purchased is so old, it doesn’t even have a copyright date! Here’s how the title is written: “The Highways of Literaute; or, What to Read and How to Read It.” Seriously, it’s got the semicolon, the comma, and the period. But it’s contents are so wonderful!!!

    Here’s a link to my blog that I’ve shared a few exerpts from the book:

  9. says

    I have a few methods I always use.
    1. Underline anything with substance, weight, authority or thought provoking.
    2. Put an asterisks by it when it’s high importance, or must come back too
    3. Circle sources when named inline
    4. Write “EX” in margin when its an example to support concept, use, topic (this way I don’t have a bunch of underlines just to support main ideas).
    5. Arrows and notes to key concepts often with my own paraphrase in margin or tangent thoughts and questions.
    6. Circle page number if that page was awesome to me for some reason

    In some of your other posts you talked about skimming, superficial reading, and when to abandon books. I personally sit inside my books using those methods above. I dont skim a lot unless its clearly rehash of something I’ve already read.

    I hate notes on the kindle and that’s the one thing that makes me cringe with my Kindle reader. And I have a lot of books on the kindle, but my paperback books always take top spot when I read. I just haven’t found a way to take kindle books into my bloodstream!

    Nice post Demien – glad to see I’m “normal” and validated by your list (plus my own quirks lol).


  10. says

    This is great. Admittedly (and slightly embarrassingly) I tend to be a #2 in your list of 3 kinds of book owners. I’ve been trying to work on that lately, and I think physically engaging with the book can help.

    I’m also a huge audio-book guy. I travel a lot, so the ability to hit play and immerse myself into the author’s words for several hours at a time helps it “stick” for me. It’d be interesting to bring a notepad next time and try some of these techniques while listening…