Reading on a treadmill or exercise bike is nearly impossible for me.
Reading library books is a unique form of torture.
The reason is that I like to mark my books, whether they’re paper or digital. Sweaty hands don’t make it easy to write on a page. Librarians frown on notes or scribbles in borrowed margins - unless you do it in pencil, write it down later and then erase the marks before you return the book.
Not that I know anything about that.
It is essential to my reading practice to underline, circle, highlight, dog-ear the page and make little notes in my disturbed scrawl all across the margins. It might be a yellow highlighter - always a yellow highlighter - and sometimes it’s a pen and sometimes it’s both but the point is that the moment is marked.
If you are beginning a habit of reading, even little bits at a time, a habit of marking will do wonderful things for you.
It leaves a trail: a reader’s trail blazed through the undergrowth that bears the marks of someone dragging a machete handle through metaphor and simile, poetry and prose. I can look back through the pages and see from whence I came, the direction of my mind and heart in certain seasons of life.
Reading was never meant to be a passive affair. It is passionate, intimate, engaging. Which is why the best way to read is to mark. To note and annotate, to highlight and underline and make a statement that something occurred to us in that very bouncy phrase or that interesting paragraph.
I wonder if the reason many of us struggle to read Scripture is that we don’t treat it like a typical text, we don’t mark it? There is a cottage industry for marking Bibles, to be sure, with everything from journaling Bibles built with wide, lined margins and special highlighters that won’t bleed through the thin pages common to most physical Bibles.
We don’t do our spirituality any favors if we believe the book we call the Bible is too holy to bear our pagan highlighter.
Because there is more to reading than that.
Reading is never an act that is detached from the narrative of life. I remember the first time I read Joseph Monninger’s A Barn In New England. I was sitting on a Caribbean beach, sweat pooling on my chair in the mid-day heat. Holley and I had taken a 10 year anniversary trip in the middle of a season of transformation. I was training to run a marathon, we were at the tail end of a health overhaul in which we lost 60 pounds each, and we were in the second year of a rich ministry season where we were feeling well again. We were seeing beauty again.
I cannot pick up that weathered, sun-beaten and sweat-haunted copy of A Barn In New England without finding myself back on the beach, back in that season.
The best way to read is to somehow mark the text because if we’re getting close enough, if we’re giving ourselves over to the words and world of the writer, the text is marking us. A spiritual life that includes reading will always be a near-physical interchange the text and the voice of the Spirit, the wild goose, whom we chase through every word and every passage.
We are marking not only words on a page but words in motion, seasons of our lives that ebb and flow and change. To read actively, marking as we go, is to make a liturgy - a holy and sacred moment - of our lives in the various texts that come our way.
We do the same in the way we read our lives. We mark birthdays and anniversaries, sobrieties and promotions, weddings and funerals with the fervor and ferocity of a bright yellow highlighter. We mark them so we won’t forget, so that the very meat of our lives is punctuated with reality and remembered with grace.
We will never come this way again. If we mark the trail well, however, we can see the direction from which we came.
And then we pray. And then we celebrate. And then we mark a clean new page tomorrow.