Some symbols to help with reading non-fiction

I can’t read (nonfiction) without a pencil in my hand. All of the reading I do is marked through with all sorts of scribble to help make sense of the structure and content of the writing later without having to reread every word. Over the past few months, to help with this, I’ve come up with a loose system for marking books to make them as useful as possible for later. No doubt this system will evolve the more I use it, but it’s been really helpful for me so far, so I thought I would put it out there for anyone who also has to read a lot and thinks such a system would be useful. So, here is a list of the symbols with a little explanation of how they are helpful and the rationale behind why that particular symbol is used that way (which might help in remembering them).

▽ – In symbolic logic, a common symbol for a conclusion of an argument (therefore) is a triangle of dots. The conclusion of an argument is most often the thesis one is trying to prove. So, when a main point or thesis is stated, to be followed by an argument for or explanation of that thesis, the upside-down triangle is used. Its pointing down lets you know that the argument or explanation follows.

▼ – If you feel that the explanation or argument for the thesis is satisfactory, fill in the triangle to show that the thesis has been completed in some way. Leave it blank if you find it lacking.

△  – The right-side-up triangle is used to mark a thesis or conclusion that has been arrived at, rather than one that is stated up-front, then defended.

▲ – The filled-in triangle functions the same as before.

➔ – The arrow pointing to a piece of text means something like “don’t skip over this” when you re-read it. It lets your future self know that, when scanning a text over again, where the must-reads are.

∈ – This is another logic symbol that translates as “is a member of a set” (where the set is then specified). So “Michael Glawson ∈ people with big, strong muscles” translates as “Michael Glawson is a member of the set of people with big, strong muscles”. Sets are really just lists of things though. I am on the big, strong muscle-y person list. So, this symbol is used to let you know that an important list follows. Normally for me that is something like a list of responses to an argument, a list of elements of some position, etc. I normally underline a word or two letting my future self know what the list is of. (If you can’t see it, think of a cross between a capitol E and a capitol C).

≣ – This is the tautology symbol. It means “is exactly the same thing as”. So, “Michael Glawson ≣ Your daddy” means that I and your dad are the same thing. To say that x is the same thing as y, though, is just to give a sort of definition of x. So, whenever a term is defined, this symbol guides you back to it. I normally circle the term. (If you can’t see it well, it’s just an equal sign, with an extra line – three lines on top each other).

⊗ – This is the “exclusive or”. In use, “x ⊗ y” means “either x is true, or y is true, but both aren’t true”. This just means that there’s some strong division, or distinction, between x and y. So, when two ideas, positions, terms, periods, etc. are distinguished from one another, I use this symbol.

⊥ – This is an upside-down t. (You noticed…) It is used, instead of F, to mean “false”, because F, if written sloppily, can sometimes look like a T. The upside-down t is clearer. I use this to indicate whenever the Author of the text is claiming or entertaining the possibility that some position is false, or that there is a problem with it. So, if the author says, “one objection to this argument is…”I put that symbol in the margin.

ϴ – I’m interested in religion, so whenever I find a passage that deals with religion or god, I mark it with a theta, the first word of “Theos,” the Greek word for “god”.

✓ – The check notes some passage that I feel I really understand, or resonate or agree with. It is my “yes” mark.

X – The X is the opposite of the check. It tells me that I think the passage is wrong, stupid, etc.

? – The question mark indicates that I don’t quite understand the passage, but want to figure it out. Or it signals that I have some specific, noted question.

(?) – The parenthetical ? indicates that there is an interesting or important question posed within the text. I normally draw a line to the answer to the question if there is one presented.

〮- The centered dot is placed next to some important point of an argument or position. Something that is, in some way, central to the point of the writing.

The last useful little notation works like this:  Sometimes you’ll come across a part of the text that you want to underline but, because of the author’s egregious usage of prepositional phrases (or parenthetical statements), or the like, where you wanted only to underline a simple sentence, the beginning and end of that sentence are separated by a bunch of crap that you don’t care about, and you don’t want to underline half the page. So, just underline the words you need, and, at the end of the first line, draw a little loop, then draw a loop at the beginning of the next line to connect them. In this case, there would be a little loop at the end of the line under “underline”, and another one at the beginning of the next line under “So,”. This lets you know to read that as one line of text, skipping the rest.

Hope this was useful. If you have suggestions, or additions from your own way of doing things, please comment.

  1. #1 by Joey Dasinger on 2.16.10 - 11.40 pm

    Hey thanks for letting me know about this… I am about to read a couple chapters of Miracles for my CS Lewis class. Ryan Blakesley and I were just talking about you tonight when we were discussing beneficial friendships. I’m really appreciative for this help, and I’ll let you know how it works out.

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