my Orange pen

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If I were to go through all my scrapbooking supplies (even the stuff in storage), my office supplies, and all of my various purses and backpacks I could probably come up with about a dozen orange gelly roll pens in various degrees of use and ink level.

Here’s why: I have a SYSTEM when I read.

Not for the true crime trashy books that I indulge in every so often, of course.

For the novels and the business books and the self-improvement books and the academic books….

I have a critical reading system that I’ve developed over the last 10+ years. Any book that I want to really learn from and get as much out of as I can I generally do the below …

(This system has never really been named. Apologies for the all caps label of SYSTEM.)

An overview of my learn-from-books critical reading system:

  1. Get an orange pen
  2. Read the book.
  3. Make brief marks at noteworthy passages
  4. Let it sit for a bit.
  5. Read it again
  6. Make better notes in the margins.
  7. Repeat steps 4-6 as necessary.

And… if you’re interested in more details …

  1. Get an orange pen
    Back story: When I first graduated from high school I got a job at Michael’s Arts and Crafts. Yes, I ended up spending A LOT of money there.
    I bought a bunch of different gelly roll pens in different colors, and somehow got attached to the orange.
    For the next 8 years or so (Bachelors + Masters degrees) I kept about 4 or 5 Sakura brand Orange Gelly Roll Fine pens on me all the time.
    I have degrees in English Literature, which requires a large amount of critical thinking, reading between the lines, etc. I used the orange pen when reading for homework or when going through the books in class.
    There is no way I would have really understood The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon or Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov if it weren’t for all the insights I noted during a class.
    I also make sure to use the orange pen EXCLUSIVELY when reading.
    To this day, I can’t handle my books having margin notes or underlines in any other ink. For whatever reason that just grates on me. I CAN’T use a highlighter.
    But on the plus side, I trained my brain to recognize the underlining and margin notes in orange ink as important to understanding the work on a deeper level.

  2. Read the book.
    The first time I read a book I read it quickly. QUICKLY.
    The fist time I read them, I read Harry Potter books 1-5 in 7 days. WHILE I was going to school full-time and had a part-time job.
    Delivering Happiness I could have easily finished in less than a day.
    I like to get a general overview of the whole work before I look at any section more closely.

  3. Make brief marks at noteworthy passages
    Again, I like to read the first time pretty quickly so I don’t generally make any notes (with my orange pen) on the first round.
    If I do, it is generally just an underline here and there.
    And that’s pretty much it. More often there will be no markings the first read-through at all.

  4. Let it sit for a bit.
    I do like to re-read books a lot – in fact, there are some books that I will CRAVE. The way I crave sugar.
    But even so, I can’t jump right back in right away.
    When I was in school and we only had 2-3 weeks to study a book, I would only have maybe 4-5 days in between reads.
    Now that I’m on self-imposed deadlines, I can be more generous.
    Ex: Fast Track Photographer by Dane Sanders  is a book I want to try to read once every year or so. Always with an orange pen.

  5. Read it again
    My second+ read-throughs I take a lot more time.
    In these read-throughs I am trying to dig deeper, recognize secondary themes or more obscure allusions.
    These were the read-throughs that having a professor who has done all the research for you was really beneficial.

  6. Make better notes in the margins.
    The second+ read-throughs are when I make the bulk of my notations.
    This includes underlining additional passages, bracketing entire paragraphs, noting reference pages elsewhere in the book, questions that I have, as well as my own legend of symbols that I’ve developed.
    True story.
    Ex: If you read one of my books and see an exclamation point in the margin, that means that passage is somehow related to humor or sarcasm.
    This is especially useful when I am reading a book specifically looking for a certain theme or thread.

  7. Repeat steps 4-6 as necessary.
    Depending on the book, I may keep an orange pen handy even on the 4th or 5th read-through.
    It’s not always necessary, but you can always learn from a book no matter how many times you’ve read it.
    When I was writing my Master’s Thesis, I read and re-read those books 8 billion times.
    Always with an orange pen. Always critically.

So … This is how I read.

This is how I learn and analyze.

This is how I continue to get more and more out of a book, even on the 3rd or 4th read-through.

This is how I do it – but everyone learns differently.

I encourage you to look a little more closely at the way you learn best. Try to come up with a system of your own for critical reading, thinking and analyzing.

What are your favorite things to do when reading a book?

{next time I mention my Orange Pen you’ll know what I’m talking about :) }

*note* Book titles above are affiliate links.

P.S. I’m always afraid this pen will be discontinued….. what would I do then!?

{ 4 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment

  • Christen Krumm November 3, 2010 at 7:23 am edit

    um. i love love love gelly rolls. love them. i’m pretty sure i’m going to michael’s today to get me one…

    i love the way you read books too. my mother-in-law picked up my copy of pride and prejudice and wanted to know why i had written in it. haha

    i love writing in my books but haven’t really done it since college (i was an english major as well)… i think maybe i’ll start it back up :)


  • Christen Krumm November 3, 2010 at 7:24 am edit

    ps have you join nano yet?


  • Maggie November 3, 2010 at 8:42 am edit

    I realize this is completely because I am crazy and a little OCD, but the idea of writing on the pages of a novel makes my skin crawl. Really, seeing you writing in Lolita seriously bothers me. I am obviously a lunatic. I will totally write a novel in the margins of a textbook but a novel, that’s sacrilegious! Remind me never to borrow a book from you!

  • Caiti November 3, 2010 at 10:37 am edit

    I can’t bear to write in my books either! I did it for many English classes in high school and college, but when it comes to my own books, I just don’t have the heart to do it (same goes for folding corners of pages and bending the spine too far). I’ve taken to keeping a Word document where I type favorite passages and quotes from the books I read. I also make liberal use of Post-it notes.


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