Pen Suspended Over Text

Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books:

Aside from simply insisting, as I already had for years, that they be more alert, I began to wonder what was the most practical way I could lead my students to a greater attentiveness, teach them to protect themselves from all those underlying messages that can shift one’s attitude without one’s being aware of it? I began to think about the way I read myself, about the activity of reading, what you put into it rather than what was simply on the page. Try this experiment, I eventually told them: from now on always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive. Put a question mark by everything you find suspect. Underline anything you really appreciate. Feel free to write “splendid,” but also, “I don’t believe a word of it.” And even “bullshit.”

A pen is not a magic wand. The critical faculty is not conjured from nothing. But it was remarkable how many students improved their performance with this simple stratagem.

I like my books clean, especially my hardbound books with thick high-quality paper. The thought of marking them with a pencil is hard enough, but with a pen? With ink that’s permanent? Oooh, that’s painful. But it doesn’t have to be.

A couple of months ago I purchased a 5.7-inch OLED smartphone that comes with a stylus — yes, a Samsung Galaxy Note 4. I’ve been reading a lot on it; when I read at night with the lights turned off and Google Play Books in night mode, what a sublime experience it is!

The OLED display reminds me of the night sky: completely dark, except for the stars. When the pixels of an OLED display is black, the pixels are completely off emitting no light, consuming no energy, and dark as a black hole. The white letters are like brilliant stars, and I’m exaggerating only a little bit.

I am in agreement with Parks. I remember the years in junior high, from seventh through ninth grade. I was in Korea. I, and almost everyone else in my class, had one of those multi-color pens with red, green, blue, and black. I also had a mechanical pencil with many extra 0.5 mm lead refills, a ten centimeter ruler, and a sheet of thin plastic the size of an A4-sized notebook. The thin plastic sheet went under the textbook page making it easy to underline and mark with pen and pencil; without it the page could tear especially when marking with a sharp mechanical pencil. I remember the feeling of wanting to learn, which was almost synonymous to wanting to mark up my textbooks.

The only marking I do on my e-books is highlighting, and making notes. Unlike real notes, the ones in e-books are not in my handwriting but computer text and shrunk into an icon that looks like a note. I click it and the note bubbles up; convenient, efficient, not terrible, but not what I want. What I want is to underline, highlight, and make notes with my handwriting intact. No shrinking, no bubbling. This way I can keep my real books clean, and read more actively by making notes on my e-books.