How do you mark your books?

Years of reading and talking to readers and reading those who write about reading reveals to me that there are many ways to mark books, but I’ve learned so much about marking by listening to others talk about marking books. Alan Jacobs, in his new book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, talks about marking books.

He doesn’t like highlighters. (I agree.)

He uses mechanical pencils. (I use fountain pens; black for the norm, blue for vacation reading.)

He writes in columns. (So do I.)

He has shorthand for annotations at the back of the book in the open pages. (Not I.)

I use check marks in the column when I disagree; a question mark for when I need to check something. I number points in the columns sometimes; circle words that matter. Always underline words I need to look up. And I underline favorite quotes.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • JoeyS

    Fountain pen, and I underline and bracket – also write in the margins.

  • rjs

    Mechanical pencils – you can’t erase fountain pen (a mistake means the only option is to get a new book). Lines, question marks, a few words – in the margins. This helps me find key passages when I need them.

    Highlighters should be outlawed. So many of my old college books are meaninglessly defaced by multicolored codes.

    OK – outlawed is too strong, but I agree with Jacobs, I don’t like them.


    how come you are anti-highlighter? i have used that method for a while now and never thought twice about it. just wondering what the advantages are to the fountain pen or otherwise.

  • Larry Baxter

    I’m with rjs – hate highlighters, strongly prefer mechanical pencil and minimalist margin notes. I do take notes in the back. That way I can come back to a book later and see all the points that struck me, without marking it up so bad that a friend can’t read it easily.

    I’m liking Kindle reading more and more though. There I do make liberal use of the highlighter :) Being able to go online and see all my highlights/notes in one place is awesome.

  • rjs


    I expect it is personal preference. I don’t like their permanence and combined with the dominating appearance of the highlighted mark, the permanence is even more of the problem.

    Perhaps it is a reaction to a time when I used to mark (highlight) more of each page than was left unmarked…

  • Deets

    I use Kindle. It’s much better for note taking except for the ways that it isn’t.

    If I’m reading a paper book, I like mechanical pencils if I can find one, but usually end up with whatever my kids left in working order after their homework.

  • Marcus

    Maybe I’m weird but I feel odd marking inside a book. I take detailed notes in a notebook, which I save for later reference.

  • Ed Gentry

    I use mechanical coloured pencils.

  • Phil Wood

    I use notebooks, for blogging and other writing. Once upon a time I had a system I used for preaching, which involved a pencil code system. ‘Ho’ in the margin for hope or ‘ant’ for anticlericalism and so on. I don’t use a formal system now but still use the pencil. I don’t use ink or highlighters. They can’t be rubbed out and tend to soak through the page.

  • JamesBrett

    i have a pretty complicated system:

    if something on the page stands out to me, i turn down the corner of the page.

    if i have a question about an idea, i turn down the corner of the page.

    if i disagree with a statement, i turn down the corner of the page.

    if i want to remember what page i’m on, i turn down the corner of the page.

  • gingoro

    What is a fountain pen? Is it something that was used in the 1700s or maybe 1800s?
    Dave W

  • Robert

    I don’t mark in my books. (I used to, but stopped)

    Primarily this is because as I have accumulated more and more books I realized that at some point I’m gona give this thing away. So when I donate I want people to be able to use the texts that comprise it.

    So since I am reticent to mark in my physical books my approach is that I take a piece of paper, fold it in half, and then write notes with page numbers or copy out phrases/ideas which I agree with. Yes this does take more time but I’ve found it also helps with retention and processing.

    One of the great things which I’ve begun to do is using the Kindle app on my iPad I can highlight, note, and review points from across several platforms. Its a great feature.

  • Scot McKnight

    Highlighters, for me, make it harder to read the other lines. They can’t be used to write; and they make me feel like I’m in college studying for an exam.

    On fountain pens and inks … making mistakes does happen; I cross out; bleeding through … rare; not as re-saleable, this is of no concern to me. Pencil is harder to read.

    Books are my friends; I record conversations with those who talk to me; it’s our conversation not anyone else’s. I mark them so I can find what I want if I need it.

    But I always underline quotable statements. (And wish, in some ways, I had known about commonplace books when I was in college. I’m too old to start, but I do have three shelves of books of good/great writers, and I occasionally open one up for a good quote or two. I was a bit surprised Jacobs confessed to finding some of his quotes on Wikipedia/Google.)

  • D C Cramer

    Mechanical pencils, lightly marked. Only marking within the text itself is to circle any indicators of flow of authors arguments (“first,” “next,” “finally,” etc.). Star in the margin by anything meaningful, whether I agree or not. Double star for something I really want to remember to come back to. Brackets in the margins for longer quotes that I think are important. Bracket plus star for longer quotes I really want to remember to come back to.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    Not as detailed as DC Cramer, but if I mark at all, I go that direction. I ruined too many books when I was young by marking them up in ways that were meaningful to me back then. I think my downfall was in failing to have much of system or organizing principle. So that if I do it at all, which is rarely, it will be more in regard to seeing key words to understand the flow, or a key thought. But for the most part, I simply don’t.

  • Dave Moore

    My system is found in this video: (upper right hand corner).

  • Steve

    i use the good old fashioned quad pen. red, black, green, and blue. most people who borrow books from me find it to be quite obnoxious. but they keep borrowing so it couldn’t be that bad!

  • waylon

    The new sharpie pens are great for marking in books. They don’t bleed through and they have a fine point for writing small in the margins

  • Nicola

    I personally dislike marking books at all, there seems to be no reason for this, I just don’t like doing it, so I tend to take notes in a separate notebook and use the little post it flags on pages where there is a quote that I find relevant. Also I use the bookmarking and highlighting on the Kindle or PDF’s which I find really useful

  • Marquis

    I use books for my study. I highlight. I underline with ink, mechanical pencil, colored leads, colored pencils. It makes the book personal to me. I don’t like books that have been marked by other people.

  • Terry

    I didn’t learn to officially mark my Bible because of a class so everyone would know I do my own work. :) However, when I’m marking my Bible my system is pretty elaborate, color-coded and the rest. It is rare that I genuinely make use, after the fact, of this elaborate system that I developed over the years and have stuck with for nearly twenty. Sad.

    Book-books, on the other hand, I’ll use any pen I can find, I’ll underline quotes I love, asterisk or exclamation point (or multiples thereof) things of particular interest, things that I wish I’d said, and the like; I question mark stuff that I need to think about further or do some work on, and I write all kinds of notes in the margins — but some of them are more like I’m in conversation with the author (Oh, yeah?; Hmmm…; You’re saying that now, give it a few years, etc.) Actually, my note-taking in a book is very much in keeping with a conversation with the author. I’ll even dog(ear) ’em when I’m really on to what they’re saying.

    As to instruments: Pigma Microns 01 or 005 for my bible, Pilot G2s, mostly, for my books. I keep demanding that I buy myself a fountain pen, and finally did, and then gave it to my son for his wedding day.

    Scot, as to commonplace books, I have found the iPhone/iPad app, web/PC/Mac program Evernote to be just the ticket from this point forward. It doesn’t have most of my past in it, but it has much of the last couple of years, saves easily, notes dates and times, includes URLs, and I have access to it everywhere.

  • Steve Wilkinson

    I take notes on my computer or iPad.I typically create a ‘Chicago style’ footnote for the book when I start reading, then just take notes with page numbers as I go. All my notes are searchable, and the book stays like new. (If I’m taking lots of notes, I use a pen scanner to pull exact quotes as I go sometimes… like when doing lots of research work.)

    But, now that I’m using Kindle books whenever I can, I’ve started to depending on taking notes and highlighting in my Kindle books. I’m not sure if this is a mistake to trust that yet or not. (Note: I do use an iPad, as a Kindle is just too darn slow to take notes, etc.)

    When, I’m going to be immediately using the e-book (for research or book review, etc.), I usually also take some notes of major points in my computer or iPad as I go, as I find that much easier to use than going back through the book.

  • Jerry

    I use the notation method recommended by Adler in “How to Read a Book” pen and Hi-Lighter, notes and sometimes an outline in the back of the book.

  • Craig Hurst

    I used to use a pencil and 12″ ruler to make perfect underscores for things I liked. Then at college professor told me he used a highlighter because it was easier so I started using it. I like them because they are faster. I cant accidentally run a pencil or pen through the wording making it look like I tried to cross it out.

  • Mark E. Smith

    I use a ruler and either a pencil or a pen. Sometimes I’ll write in the margin. I may even bracket some material that I don’t want to take the time to underline.

  • DRT

    Perhaps you all can tell, but I never take a note, or bend a page, or highlight a text. My books all look like no one has read them.

  • DRT

    …OK, I used to take notes in church for a preacher that was so disorganized that it was nearly impossible to make sense of what he was saying.

  • mark

    I use red pens. They stand out much better than black or pencil so it’s easy to find your’re markings. I underline and bracket, and write some in the margins. I use dog-ears to mark especially good pages that I will definitely refer back to.

  • Plstepp

    I take notes in any & all available whitespace; I’m conversing with the author. I’ll write out verbatim things that I think are particularly well-said. I’ll outline chapters in the space before & after each. I’ll start my own personal index inside the front cover.

    As for getting books with drone else’s notes: I bought the LCL of Josephus through an auction site a few years ago. Imagine my delight when I opened the first volume & found that the previous owner was Bruce Metzger, and that he had received the set as a gift from another prominent NT scholar, Walter Lock (author of the commentary on the Pastorals in the original ICC.). And evidently Metzger & Robert Kraft met regularly at that time to study Josephus, for there were a dozen pages of mimeographed pages of notes (hand-annotated) with their names on them.

  • Plstepp

    Drone else = someone else; typing on an iPhone, sorry.