In a previous post I mentioned that I like to take marginal notes when I want to engage deeply with a text. This is quite time consuming because I stop to evaluate each paragraph and think about how to summarize it. This kind of reading is only appropriate for a relatively small portion of the books that I read. I learned from A.G. Sertillanges’s book, The Intellectual Life, that it is a mistake to read books with a higher level of attention than they deserve. His prescription is quite systematic, distinguishing four distinct categories of reading.1 I would simply suggest that we should adjust the tools and degree of annotation to the text at hand and our research purposes for it. Seneca makes much the same point:

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.2

After spending quite a bit of time working out a digital annotation system, I face the danger of wanting to apply it to everything I read. This transforms into what Sertillanges diagnoses as an inordinate lust for collecting information:

Some people have so many and such full notebooks that they are prevented by a sort of anticipatory discouragement from ever opening them. Their imaginary treasures have cost much time and trouble, and they yield no return.3

More to come on note-taking in general.


  1. A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life, trans. Mary Ryan (The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 152.

  2. ??? Quote taken from the excellent Taking Note blog.

  3. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life, 188.