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« End the Fed? | Main | Setting the Record Straight on Austro-Punkism and the Sociology of the Austrian School of Economics »


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My wife used to deplore my habit of marking books but other people said it was ok because if they are short of time they only need to read the marked bits.

It can be amusing to read the annotations in library books. At the head of Hayek's 'Why I am not a conservative' someone wrote "You could have fooled me" and in another hand "how hard would that be?"

You can see when readers are paying attention, when they mark the key points.

Until recently you could also see the dates when the books were due for return, so you could check the readership of Austrian books. Not good!

I do the same thing - underlining, highlighting, comments in the margin, etc. I've used the blank pages in back/front just like that! I also use scrap paper to keep a running "index" that I keep with the book - about one ever 40-50 pages or so. Someday, the intent was to digitize the "index" and use it for reference. (Fat chance!)

I have tried so many different systems of marking up books through the years. At one time I was using post-it notes. Now I just use a pencil, and underline important passages and write comments, and also mark pages using a system I learned from Gordon Tullock --- draw a line along the edge of the pages so you can follow it by flicking through the pages.

But I have multiple ways I read these days. I read quickly to get the basic point. I read deeply in which I engage the text. And I read selectively through texts that I have already read.

As opposed to the past, I read mainly now as part of the process of writing, not just for reading to learn.


I can't bring myself to mark up books... it's like scribbling on a piece of art.

I found out that Rothbard had no trouble though. All his books are underlined with things like "balls!" or "oh shit" all up and down the margins.

I used to balance the desire not to sloppily mark up books with the need to make notes by underling with a ruler! My edition of Human Action is like that. Today I often xerox the article or chapter and mark that up in very sloppy ways. Of course, now you have two copies of everything -- the book and the copy. There is probably no good solution to the problem. Maybe the Kindle?

I've actually been yelled at for writing notes in the margins of books. (More recently, I was asked why I was 'defacing' a book while reading Menger's Principles of Economics while taking the train.)

"It's how I keep track of thoughts or comments on the subject of what I am reading. Besides, I own it, so does it really matter?" is my usual reply.

I am convinced that there is no better habit to develop than marking up books in a way that is comfortable and natural. However, there are some drawbacks that come from excessively marking up books. Here is what I do:

1.) Like Dave, I create my own index of subjects in the front part of the book. I have never referred to the published index in ANY book. I will write "socialism -- 27, 48, 69, 70-76, etc. etc. Of course, this can get pretty tedious, so I will then circle the really important parts of each section (for example, I will circle 48 and 70-76 if I found those parts particularly important).

2.) In the actual text, I will rotate between underlining and highlighting. I have found that this saves me from just underlining the entire page. Switching between highlighter and pen will help you identify subtle changes and transitions in the argument. And like my own personal index, I will put stars and crosses on the side of the pages where there are strong and important arguments.

3.) It is also important to develop your vocabulary, so in the back of the book I will write wors that I either have never heard or do not yet know how to use in sentences. So after having finished the book, I will go back and write the definitions of the words I have collected while reading the book.

Now for the drawbacks:

--- Now marking up books helps you reference when you need to consult the arguments again. I can pick up any book I have read and go right to the argument that I want to re-visit. But the drawback is that it is almost impossible to read the book straight through again because it is all marked up. So while I know where to turn, I can never actually re-read the book, so I have found myself ordering second copies of books that I have already read. So I think Mario's method of making copies is a good idea.

Oh, and I am not in favor of making extensive notes in books. There is just not enough room for that. So I would suggest buying notebooks and recording your thoughts in there.

It can be interesting to see how your reaction to a book changes over time: that works best with copies (like Mario's) and copies of individuail articles, you can also date each reading.

One of my better organised colleagues used two sets of cards, the larger cards (5x3 inches) with subject headings, then articles could be listed by author and the originals could be kept in an alphabetic filing system instead of trying to group reprints by subject.
The smaller cards contained a summary of the key points in each article. When he settled down to write he lined up the cards in columns on the table and he wrote a lot of the article by transcribing straight off the cards. That was before word processors.

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