On Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom. Having dropped out of Little Dorrit after the first trimester, I am determined to see Bleak House through. I’ve been listening to a delightful audio recording. I woke up on an elliptical machine from a protracted daydream yesterday, though, and found that I had almost entirely lost the thread.

So I just visited CliffsNotes’s web site, where I read this:

In the Snagsbys and their maid Guster, Dickens again shows his penchant for oddity, caricature, and the grotesque. Like other Victorian novelists, Dickens gives far more attention to such minor characters than is demanded by the plot. Such generosity in creation was more acceptable to Dickens’ readers than to today’s. The Victorian age, recall, was less hurried than ours and, in any event, it took more delight in reading. [From the summary of chapter 12.]

First I nodded in agreement at this reminder, which cannot be overstated. Then I was more impressed: I took in the breath units baked into that last sentence. Those commas, those interruptors and phrases! They all slowed down the sentence, making it a perfect vehicle for its content.

Then I “recalled” something more: I was reading CliffsNotes. As an English teacher, I’ve taken persistent and largely ineffectual steps to discourage students from going to this site. How ironic, how audacious for CliffsNotes to preach to us about slow reading!

Then, after my indignation subsided, more: I, my students’ company commander, who has been boldly overseeing the field in the general cultural retreat, was reading CliffsNotes.

And how was I reading CliffsNotes? (If you’re familiar with Bleak House, you may recognize the Rev. Mr. Chadband’s rhetorical approach, which I instinctively model. The Reverend may put his listeners to sleep, but he really knows how to break down a text.)

And how (rejoining myself, already in progress, if  “progress” is the right word) was I reading CliffsNotes? As an aid to a long and fairly unfocused text. As a means of adopting an unhurried text to my hurried lifestyle. As a means of bridging the centuries. As a way of taking in the entire, sprawling battlefield in my fight to read this text.

Perhaps Roland Barthes would have agreed that I was having my boredom and eating it, too. I like to think so.

This series of realizations happened in a few seconds, but it has made me reconsider my fusillades against online summaries. And for the first time, I wonder if CliffsNotes and its ilk might help my students in conjunction with, and not in place of, a long text.

Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom

Before I started teaching, I never thought that a high school English teacher is, or should be, a reading teacher. But literary criticism really is reading instruction, and we English teachers distill literary criticism into decoctions for our students to drink with challenging texts. That’s why I’m so thankful for the New Critics, despite my qualms: Cleanth Brooks and Red Warren tried out and refined their theories in their college classrooms. Looking back on it, I think some of my best English professors saw themselves as something like remedial reading teachers.

Roland Barthes’s small, rewarding book The Pleasure of the Text, which I’m slowly working through, points out, I think, the chief reason reading must be taught, even in AP-level English courses and in college:

Now paradoxically (so strong is the belief that one need merely go fast in order not to be bored), this second, applied reading (in the real sense of the word “application”) is the one suited to the modern text, the limit-text. Read slowly, read all of a novel by Zola, and the book will drop from your hands; read fast, in snatches, some modern text, and it becomes opaque, inaccessible to your pleasure: you want something to happen and nothing does, for what happens to the language does not happen in the discourse: what “happens,” what “goes away” . . . occurs in the volume of the languages, in the uttering, not in the sequence of utterances: not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover — in order to read today’s writers — the leisure of bygone readings: to be aristocratic readers. [Pages 12 – 13, emphasis original]

Have Barthes’s “aristocratic readers” died off with Fielding’s and Sterne’s readers? The comparison between the best of modern fiction with (what I take to be) eighteenth-century novels suggests that reading instructors may find help from the Age of Enlightenment.

When I cross-reference, I feel his pleasure

All I can remember of Chariots of Fire are the endless slow-motion track meets and a single line: “When I run, I feel his pleasure.” I had a similar feeling a couple of years ago one morning while happily cross-referencing two or three of my books. I became aware that I was made, in part, for God to enjoy my cross-referencing.

My cross-referencing is usually the first part and sometimes a large part of my devotions. It makes up most of the lectio and the meditatio of my Lectio Divina.

Do you read this way? I mean, how weird is this?

I’ll start reading a new book, or rereading an old one. It doesn’t have to be a devotional book, or even a “Christian” book, though it may be both. It may be the Bible or The Book of Common Prayer. It may be late at night and I’m reading a biography or maybe some poetry by Basho or Blake or Ben Zen.

All of a sudden, something in the book reminds me of something else in the book, or of something in another book. And I’m driven to link them with notes in the margins. I study the passages side by side. If it’s really going someplace, I type up something and save it on the computer.

I start spreading the books in front of me on the floor. Sometimes I have more than ten books out along with a few pads, a highlighter and a pen. And I’m excited. “My heart overflows with a good matter…” (Psalm 45:1).

And I’m often excited about the same thought I’ve had over several mornings over several years. My notes on the subject keep piling up, like sand on a drip castle. I sometimes interrupt my meditation with visions of writing a book on the subject.

I’d be tempted to, except my cross-referencing, like my reading, is not that extensive. I read a little at a time, and I stop and move into meditatio or oratio when I’m full enough with reading. It’s not like I’m deliberately researching or anything.

The number of books connected by my cross-references is relatively small. I have lots of books with a few cross references, and I have about twenty books with loads of cross-references. So all of the phantom books I would author would cite the same principal sources.

My method is pretty simple. I collect all references to a particular subject (or thought, if the subject is too broad) in the margin of the book that reminds me most about that subject or thought. Passages on the same subject or thought in other books are cross-referenced to that “central reference.”

I thought I’d give you a sample thought, starting with its central reference.

Thought: Our hearts can become our treasure — the playground God and we share.

Central reference: “Your heart, if it is totally surrendered to God, is itself that treasure, that very kingdom you long for and are seeking.” (Jean-Pierre deCaussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment (New York: HarperCollins Publishers 1989), p. 30.)


“Watch over your heart with all diligence, / For from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23, NNAS)

“He becomes to them a sensible presence Who follows them and envelops them wherever they go and in all that they do. . . . and when they have to be absorbed in some distracting work, they nevertheless easily find God again by a quick glance into their own souls.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1972), p.276-77.)

“Once the intellect has accomplished its task
of discovering the place where the heart resides,
it will immediately see things
of which it was previously ignorant
and could never have hoped to find.”

(Symeon the New Theologian, quoted in The Book of Mystical Chapters, John Anthony McGuckin, trans. (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2002), p. 106.)

“The backslider in heart will have his fill of his own ways, / But a good man will be satisfied with his.” (Proverbs 14:14, NNAS)

“All God’s creatures invite us to forget our vain cares and enter into our own hearts, which God Himself has made to be His paradise and our own.” (Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1983), p. 115.)

“Soul, you must seek yourself in Me / And in yourself seek Me.” (Teresa of Avila, “Seeking God.”)

“Isaac of Nineveh likewise used the image of Jacob’s ladder as an image for the ascent to God through descent: ‘Strive to enter the treasure chamber that is within you; that way you will see the heavenly treasure.'” (Anselm Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999), p. 21.)

“On one hand, the soul, moved by love, becomes the object of its own knowledge. On the other hand, the soul, touched and inflamed and transfigured by the illuminative flame of God’s immediate presence, is no longer the object of knowledge but the actual medium in which God is known.” (Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company 1979), p. 278.)

“…[W]here your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21, NNAS)


How to mark a book

We pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

– from “Marginalia” by Billy Collins

From the looks of a lot of home libraries I’ve been in, it would be presumptuous of me to start right in with “how to mark a book.” I might as well start in with “how to destroy your garden.” Most people would never mark a book. Most people teach their children not to mark or draw in books. (I think that coloring books are meant to wean us from marking books. They’re a kind of nicotine patch for preschoolers.) Once they start school, children must lug around books all day and read them, but they must never mark in them. At the end of the term, students are fined if the books have marks. So we have a nation that equates marking in books with sin and shame.

To most adults, I think, books are rarefied or holy, perhaps too holy to interact with. Books crouch on shelves like household gods, keeping ignorance at bay. A small library on a home’s main floor may amount to a false front, a prop to give neighbors a certain impression of their host’s intellectual life. Neighbors may get the idea that he holds a reservoir of learning that could pour out of his mouth at any twist of the conversation.

But the presence of a book may have nothing to do with its impact on its owner. A lot of people never really get mad at a book. Few people ever throw a book, kiss a book, cry over a book, or reread a page in a book more than once or twice, if that. Some people never use a dictionary to find out what a big word in a book means. As a species, people don’t interact with books much.

[marked page]I’m not suggesting that you mark every book you own, any more than I would suggest that my dog mark every tree he sniffs. But you should be free to mark up most books in the most worthwhile core of your collection. My dog has his favorites, and so should you.

I mark in (i.e., annotate) a book for four reasons. First,  I annotate a book to create trails as if I were the first person to hike through a particular forest. I may want to read the text, or part of a text, more than once. (Why else would I keep the book after I’ve read it?) During my second reading, my first reading’s marginal comments and summaries quickly give me the gist of my first reading so I can take advantage of my second, which has its own charms.  It’s like I’ve blazed a trail for my future self.

(It’s funny how people and bookstores price used books on sites like and The fewer the marks, the pricier the book! This is backward thinking, so take advantage of the bargains. People love the idea of a pristine forest, but wouldn’t you compromise some of that pristine-ness for a well-marked trail if you wished to hike in that forest?)

Second, I annotate a book to interact with the author – to hold up my end of the conversation.  Without annotating, books are like lectures.  I make reading a conversation instead by jotting down my reactions as well as new thinking a passage leads me to. When I read or refer to the book again, my earlier, written realizations or ideas often mean more to me than the book’s text.

Third, I annotate a book to learn what the book teaches, and maybe not just the book’s explicit content. By the time I break in certain books, I’ve gone beyond just the book’s facts and opinions.  I’ve developed new interests or considered new ideas. Maybe I’ve learned more about myself.  (Books often meet me in ways the author couldn’t have anticipated, though an author who writes a penetrating and nuanced book provides such experiences to many readers.) By annotating, the book becomes my territory, to return to my dog and his trees. In fact, a book sometimes becomes part of me in some way.

Finally, I annotate my books to learn to write, or at least to learn how a sentence or paragraph was written. My improvement in writing and in literary analysis involves close readings of writers I admire. There are patterns in the use of nouns, pronouns, verbs and other parts of speech; there are patterns in syntax and in sentence variation; and there are patterns in sound devices, such as alliteration and assonance. I mark these with different symbols or colors, and I connect these dots. Patterns emerge, and style emerges from patterns. To read like a writer, I have to annotate like one, too.

How to annotate a book

Speaking of style, you’ll develop your own annotation style very quickly.  But like a writing style, your annotating style can always be improved even if your style works for you.  So here are some ideas for annotating.

First off, let’s be clear: where does one annotate? In the book’s text and in its margins.  Interlineations are notes you insert between the text’s lines (difficult to do in most books).  Marginalia are notes you write in the text’s margins.

Use marks.  Use question marks to show what is unclear or confusing. Use exclamation marks or smiley faces to show your agreement or delight. Employ other marks, and invent still others with their own significance!

Marginal comments serve many purposes.  Summarizing a passage’s information in the margins can help you find information quickly and can help you go beyond a first-draft reading quickly the next time you read a passage.  (Summarizing in the margins means you’ll never accidentally separate your summaries from the book summarized, as you might if you wrote your summaries in a notebook or somewhere else.)  Stating your agreements and disagreements with the text helps keep your reading more conversational and may give you material for use in later assignments – essays and discussions, for instance – if you’re reading for a class or book group.  Reflecting on associations you’re making with the text – associations such as other books and movies, personal memories, and current events the text reminds you of – makes the reading more personal and more valuable to you in the long run.  Your book’s margins may begin to resemble a shorthand journal or diary!  Associations, such as a song, a dream, or a stray memory, may seem random, but they may carry more psychic weight than you may realize at first.  When you connect the dots during a subsequent reading, those connections can be powerful!  (I love to write about how my experiences in reading a single text differ over time.)

Highlight, bracket, or underline text you think will be the most significant to you when you read those pages again later.  Consider labeling the text that you highlighted, bracketed, or underlined: you’d be leaving a better trail for yourself for subsequent readings.

Circle words you’re not familiar with, look them up, and write their definitions in the margins beside them.  Consider creating on a blank page in the book’s front or back matter a running glossary complete with the page numbers where the new words can be found in context.

Mark and label a work’s literary and rhetorical devices.  This will assist you in any assignment involving literary analysis by helping you to discover how the author gets across his material.  It may also lead to an appreciation of the writer’s craft that could improve your own writing style!  You may wish to use different shapes (triangles, rectangles, ovals) or colors to mark different literary devices.  Draw a quick legend to later remind yourself of what each shape or color stands for.

Make impromptu graphic organizers – tables, diagrams, and the like – in the margins to summarize your understanding of complicated passages.  That way, you won’t have to learn the material all over again in subsequent readings.

Cross-reference topics and ideas that recur in the text.  If you’re interested in references to tragedy in a book about the history of theater, for instance, write the page number of the most important text on tragedy in the margins beside the book’s other references to tragedy.  That most important reference to tragedy would also be a place to jot down the page numbers where all of the other references to tragedy you’ve discovered can be found.  (You might even put letters such as T, M, or B after those page numbers to indicate that the information is at the top, middle or bottom of the page in question.)  You’ll be able to quickly find related material the next time you use the book!

The next logical step when you begin to cross-reference is to start an index in the back or to supplement the book’s existing index.  (Click here for an example of an index I put together for one of my core books.)  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve referred back to my own index to find things in a book.  The index sometimes also develops into a shorthand list of things that I found helpful or inspiring in a book, so my indexes have sometimes served me as alphabetized lists of writing prompts.

Click here for an outline that includes these annotation methods and a few others.

Here are two other resources for learning how to make a satisfying mess out of your books:

“How to Mark a Book,” an essay by Mortimer J. Adler

“All Books are Coloring Books,” a book review of The Art of Reading: a Handbook on Writing by Roger J. Ray and Ann Ray

Slow reading

Slow reading is about reading at a reflective pace.

There are many different kinds of reading, both fast and slow. Fast reading is greatly facilitated by digital technology. For a time, we thought that digital technology would replace books altogether. We were wrong about that. Print and books are more prevalent than ever. We are in the middle of a cultural shift that is still learning the proper place of digital technology.

Fast information is terrific when we need a quick, rough answer, but like fast food it often leaves one hungering for something more substantial. Digital technology is terrific for finding information and reading short snippets, but print and books lend themselves to slow reading, a form of reading that is more pleasant and often is the only way to really understand a concept.

Many types of reading are improved by reading slowly: literature with rich dimensions that might be missed if read too quickly; local stories that engage our personal memories; and research materials that require sustained thought for understanding.

Slow readers might only read a page or two at a time, reading and re-reading until they apprehend the experience or meaning represented in the text.

Slow readers often enjoy a sensual relationship with their information – noticing the well-selected binding, paper, illustrations and type; sub-vocalizing or reading the text aloud to hear it.

Slow readers prefer books over screens, for the superior readability of paper, but also for the fixity of print. Print captures ideas and gives them a stillness that allows the reader to open deeply to them. The binding of a book captures an experience or idea at particular space and time. When the reading is complete, you place it with satisfaction on your bookshelf.

Slow reading is an art form, a third way of reading not just for information or entertainment. The reader calls upon creative faculties and is changed in the process of reading. It has both the serious purpose of reading non-fiction to better understand things, and the playful imagination of reading fiction to see things in new ways. There is no artifact of this art form; no book, no painting, no sculpture; but like all good art, the act of slow reading exercises our imagination to develop interiority, our psychological framework.

Slow reading is a community event, restoring connections between ideas and people. The continuity of relationships through reading is experienced when we borrow books from friends; when we read long stories to our kids till they fall asleep; when we take turns reading a play aloud with our teenagers; when we share what we are reading with family and friends over dinner.

Slow reading is closely associated with the larger Slow movement and its theme of locality. Not only do we change our relationship with time, but with space too. Slow readers seek out local content, local readings and encourage micro-publishing. These acts not only provide an audience for local writers, but nurture diversity that replenishes global media when its formulaic content runs dry.

Slow readers support local libraries as a public space in the overwhelming presence of commercial space. Libraries are a shelter and turning point for those with few resources; a place for entrepreneurs to get started; a hall for public discourse among citizens interested in social change.

Slow reading is a form of resistance, challenging a hectic culture that requires speed reading of volumes of information fragments. Slow reading is therapeutic as it restores a sense of well-being. It enriches our private lives and better equips us for the world. Slow reading is recognition of the intrinsically worthy act of reading. It is good for our minds, our emotional health, our communities and planet.

© 2007 John Miedema. Used by permission. John is the author of Slow Reading, a concise review of research on the benefits of reflective reading. He publishes his reviews and essays at (This essay originally appeared on here.)