Making Better Margins

Many years ago, I enjoyed an all-too-brief read of Max De Pree’s, Leadership is an Art.  In that book, De Pree encourages readers to ‘make the book your own’ by interacting with it, including the active writing along the pages’ edge with responses to key and significant concepts an author proposes or illustrates.  For many, the idea of writing in a book is tantamount to vandalism, but in reality, De Pree’s encouragement is incredibly important because it brings the reader into direct engagement not with the author, but with the idea the author has offered.  It then becomes absolutely clear that the more active a reading experience can be made, the more enriching the new knowledge gleaned from that book can be to the reader.

I’ve seen this practiced by numerous people as they have enjoyed several varieties of written work, be they technical, philosophical, spiritual (yes, even Bibles), and fictional volumes.  I’ve also noticed a distinct advantage these readers have when they take the time to make note of an especially impactful idea.  By doing so, they have an uncannily stronger recall of key passages have when conversing with others who share an interest or experience with the same book.  In fact, the reader who takes the time to make notes, respond to and even question in writing throughout their texts soon further examine the theories of the author as well as their own impressions to colleagues and acquaintances—while typically adding greatly to the quality of those dialogs.

Just as an author has made the commitment to illustrate a key concept or idea for readers to consider, examine, and ruminate upon, the reader who has taken notes along the margins of that book have advanced their relationship and the ideas in it at an almost contractual level.

A reader who records their thoughts and impressions do so with a measure of ‘first-thought’ -ness, to be sure, in a fashion Malcolm Gladwell outlines in his book, blink).  Yet they also do so with the equally sincere intent to re-examine their own responses every bit as much as the ideas presented in their chosen text.  This contract then becomes one of the several forms of accountability.

This is a metric of the constant learner.

For just as water can become a solid or a gas by transforming it from its natural, liquid state, so too can the manner in which the active readers/learners hold themselves to reconsider their earlier thoughts and opinions as well as those of the author. Our thoughts, perspectives, and paradigms can indeed be changed.  Moreover, the active and ongoing exercising of ideas through conversations and other forums accelerate transformations that naturally occur when our thinking is sufficiently challenged by new information, different views, even disagreement.

In this way, De Pree and other writers remind us that when we choose to read a text, we have accepted that book as much more than a reading opportunity, and we must fulfill that opportunity to the best of our abilities.  For as permanent as the passages of the author’s comments are the foundation for a dialog, the perspectives we might contribute offer at the very least the first mile-markers of our assessment and impressions.

In time, we might discover that our earliest comments represent an acutely-aware level of understanding we possessed when we first read the book.  But occasionally, we also find that our learning or understanding of a concept may have been incomplete during that first read.  This underscores the enormous value of re-discovering a favored book at a later time to measure our responses to the ideas offered by the author and our previous self.

In time, what may become additionally valuable to us may be the possibility of our initial thoughts and reflections widening; that our original interpretations of an author’s concepts, along with our own, may augment our range and depth of understanding of those whose ideas differ from our own—and the ways in which we can grow from that awareness.

As De Pree so rightly stated, a good book isn’t defined by what the author puts into it—it’s what the reader is able to get out of it.

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