How To Read An Unfinished Book (repost)

Note: This is a repost from an article I wrote a couple of years ago on the site Joyful, Jubilant Learning. My dear friend Rosa Say reminded me of it and I wanted to share it with my readers here.

All of the books I have ever purchased are unfinished.

Now they may have been completed. All the chapters included. A nice title. Smartly designed book jacket. Readily available at my local Barnes & Noble or online at But when I hold that newly purchased book in my hands for the first time…I know that it’s not finished. It needs something more.

To me, a book is one side of a conversation. In order to get the most out of it – to learn from it – I need to engage in the conversation the author has started. I need to finish what the author started.

I will warn you right now: I am not kind to my books. If you were to peruse the shelves of my library you would find books that look like they’ve been run over by a car, withstood a few cycles in the washing machine, and carry the stains of various food and beverages.

That’s because I live with my books.

In living with my books, I engage in a variety of conversations both with the books and with the people around me. I keep them close at hand. I am never very far without access to the latest book that I’m engaged with. Because my goal is to finish what was started on the inside.

So here’s how I work at reading, processing, conversing with, and integrating the unfinished books I encounter on a regular basis. You might find some of these too painful to incorporate into your own learning. I only offer them as an insight into my own processes.

1. Lose the dust cover.
I know that someone spent a lot of time working on the design of that book jacket, but I can’t properly dismantle this book with that thing still flimsily (is that a real word?) hanging on to the outside of the cover. I will read the comments on the back and on the inside panels and then toss it. Now I have an nondescript book with only the title on the spine to remind me what is on the inside. For me, the book jacket gets in the way. I have found that none of my books lost any significant value by throwing the book cover away.

2. Write some questions.
This is done on the title page of my book. I do this before I even start reading. What do I want this book to answer for me? What do I think this book will answer for me? Each of us purchases a book because we believe it will provide us with some kind of insight, answers, or different perspective. I state those up front…in the book. Maybe the book will answer those questions – maybe it won’t. But now I’m reading with intention. Now I’m asking the author questions and am engaged in searching for answers.

3. Underline and re-read.
As I begin to read, there will be certain lines and words that stick out for me. I underline those. After I underline them, I will re-read what I just underlined. I want to think about why this portion of the book is important to me.

A quick note about underlining – use the appropriate pen. Don’t use a Sharpie. It’s too bold and will bleed through the pages. A nice gel pen could suffice if the ink dries quickly and the paper is thick enough. A ballpoint pen seems to work better for me, unless the pen leaks a little when you first touch it to the paper. These may seem like trivial issues, but when you mark up your book A LOT – the type of writing utensil is crucial. Sometimes, a mechanical pencil may be your best bet.

Some people underline a book because it helps them stay focused. It’s easy for our minds to drift while we’re reading. I underline the book because I want to condense it to the main points that relate to me and my situation. When I read back through the book, I will focus on the underlined parts. By underlining, I’m trying to make the book smaller.

4. Write in your book.
I love a book with wide margins and blank spaces at the end of chapters. I fill those spaces up with notes, questions, thoughts,and summaries. I have a marking system that I use when I write in my book:
– I place a “Q:” with the topic of a quote next to quotes I want to remember.
– I place a “I:” with the topic of the illustration next to those stories that catch my interest.
– I place a “?” next to passages that raise questions for me.
– I place a “*” next to important points that stand out above the rest.
If I underline a passage that is very significant, I will summarize it in the margins and draw an arrow to it.

5. Index your material.
Now I understand why they place blank pages at the front and back of books. It’s so I can create my own index of what I find important. Whenever I place a mark next to a quote, illustration, passage that I definitely want to refer to later, I will make a note of it on the front page of the book. I create my own index. That way, if I remember that there’s something in a book that I need, I don’t have to search the whole book. I can go back through my index.

6. Teach it to someone else.

In order for me to better understand a concept or perspective that I read in a book, I need to share it with someone else. This forces me to put things in my own words and to think it through in my own mind. I will pull my book out and ask people what they think about certain passages or explain what it is that I’m reading. As I attempt to explain, I am learning how to formulate the concepts and ideas in my own terms. I tend to learn so much more through the process of teaching then I do by learning alone.

7. Move the information from the book to your own system.
Whenever I buy a book, I realize that I won’t need everything that’s written in the book. That’s why I go through the whole process of reading it, marking it, and analyzing it. I am subjectively pulling information out of the book. And I don’t want to leave information that I need in the book.

So I will transcribe key thoughts, ideas, quotes on index cards and paste them on my wall. I will file things away on my computer or in my filing cabinet. I will write key ideas on a blog or in a journal. My goal is to get the information out of the book and into the systems that I use on a daily basis.

And here’s the way to measure if you’re doing this successfully: What would happen if you lost your library? What if all of your books were stolen or destroyed? What would you have left?

I would definitely feel a sense of loss because I really like my books. Some of them have great sentimental value. Many have been the source of powerful changes in the way I think and live. But I’d be more upset if I lost the files and systems I use to keep information. Because those things make up the information I want to keep, the hard work of gleaning through each of my books to pull out the pieces I find useful and inspiring.

What is a book but the beginning of a conversation? A conversation that is unfinished until you, the reader, become engaged in it. Sometimes I am overwhelmed when I walk into a bookstore and see all of the conversations that I could enter into – too many books, not enough time. But that doesn’t stop me from diving in and messing up as many books as I can.

How about you? Do you have a system for finishing the books you buy? How do you interact with your books to get the most out of them?

Additional Reading: If you’d like to read more good ideas, then I invite you to browse through the comments from the original posting.

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