Scripture Marking

The set of scriptures which I regularly take to church and read out of is one of those little quads, the kind that are convenient to carry around but which my mother complains have such small text as to be unreadable. I’ve had it for over a decade, but there isn’t a single mark in it–no highlighting, no underlining, no comments in the margins. People sometimes look at it and question whether I ever read my scriptures.

I’ve always been uneasy with writing in books; I find it both distracting and aesthetically unappealing. I remember cringing in Seminary when we were told to write things in our scriptures. I dutifully went along with the writing and underlining and even gluing in of little quotes, but I’ve never since used those scriptures.

This squeamishness extends beyond the scriptures; I’m one of the few students I know who doesn’t mark up her academic books. I have a couple of books purchased secondhand that came with random highlighting and occasionally even comments (and I wince a little every time I come to those pages), but most of my personal library is mark-free. Several years ago I was sitting in a summer German course next to someone who’d forgotten her book, and so I offered to share. I nearly fell out of my chair when during the lecture, she whipped out a pink pen and started making notes in the book. My book. The horror!

Occasionally, though, I wonder whether I’m missing something. On a practical level, I can see the value of taking notes in books (as opposed to typing them elsewhere, which is what I usually do), where they’re readily available. And writing in a book is perhaps a way of making it your own, of mingling its ideas with your interpretations and insights–exactly the kind of thing that you’d want to do with the scriptures. Maybe, I sometimes think, I should get a cheap copy of the Book of Mormon and (gasp!) experiment with marking it up.


  1. Maybe, I sometimes think, I should get a cheap copy of the Book of Mormon and (gasp!) experiment with marking it up.

    I’ve heard some people who do this on a regular basis, so as not to be biased by their previous markings…so there is an opportunity for fresh reading fairly frequently.

    On the other hand, I have a friend whose scriptures are one journal for her (she mentioned this in our lesson on journals on Sunday) — the same set for years and years and years, with quotes in the margins and thoughts everywhere and lines and number and…. To each his own, right?

    I personally like marking and writing..otherwise I would not be able to enjoy insights that would leave me unless I recorded them somehow…and I can skim through and find those highlights when I’m in a browsing mode. But, I do think sometimes I might miss other stuff because my eyes more easily go to the stuff that is emphasized.

  2. What I do is keep two sets of scriptures. One I use for carrying to church and teaching, clean of any highlighting and notes. The other set is for personal study and contains highlights and very light notes.

    For longer notes and the writing of impressions and thoughts while reading, I’ve gone to composition books. I write what book of scripture the notes cover on the cover and then on each page I write a date and the specific chapter and verse that I am writing on. This allows me to write more extensive notes and thoughts and provides the journaling that I love to go back and read while keeping the scriptures clean or cleaner.

  3. This is a tangent, but what can your classmate possibly have been thinking in marking your textbook? Aside from the rudeness of the act, it seems bizzare. They weren’t going to take your book home with them; they’d never be able to access what they’d written.

  4. I recently heard a BYU Fireside by Elder Oaks called “Always”. In that he talks about sitting next to someone who had colored tabs in their scriptures. In the front of the book was a typewritten list of subjects and the tabs were aligned with the topic to which the scripture pertained. Elder Oaks bought a set of inexpensive scriptures and had begun his had at this technique.

    I thought that would be handy for a bishop’s office. A lot less obvious than the 3×5 cards I used.

    I’ve goten some scriptures and am in the process of compiling a list of topics that I thought might be useful.

  5. I never liked marking my scriptures either because I was taught to respect all books. I love books anyway. I finally compromised by using little heart stickers like Mrs. Grossman makes to mark my sciprtures. It still looks nice and I can find verses I need.

  6. I find marking and writing in scriptures–a practice that I was taught as a child and tried to continue through about the end of my mission–unhelpful. In fact, when I go back to reread the “insights” that I’ve written, I almost always find them either banal or incorrect from my current perspective. And when it comes to finding scriptures, and electronic searching make it a trivial task to locate any scripture as long as you can remember a couple of key words. So, for my personal purposes, marking up the scriptures is a practice that I now avoid.

    On the other hand, I recognize that the acts of marking and of creating a system are, in themselves, a form of meditative practice for some people. So I certainly wouldn’t discourage others from marking.

  7. Once upon a time I did, but I’ve given it up. Partly I no longer need it, but partly I just reacted to seeing “scripture marking overkill” by too many others. I think seminary has come to stress scripture marking as a substitute for reading and understanding — that might be unfair, but after seeing some of the colorfully illustrated decals pressed over key passages in youth scriptures, you might agree.

    I have, however, started marking (in carefully straightedged underlining and bracketing, with occasional notations) my own personal books as I read them, so family members who eventually browse through my books will know I actually read them. Well, some of them. So I’ve come 180 degrees from where I was some years ago.

  8. Lynnette,

    I was raised with a similar reverence towards books, and never mark or (horrors!) dog-ear my own. (Seriously, folks, dog-earing is so very bad for books. Weakens the paper by breaking the fibers so that the corner eventually falls off.)

    Ironically, I often like to read books (even library books) that someone else has marked, because I find their notes interesting.

    I have a number of things highlighted in my scriptures. I have JST and foreign language footnotes carefully marked, seminary scripture mastry scriptures highlighted, as well as scriptures that I found comforting. I also spent an entire year in seminary marking the scriptures that were referenced in hymns, and writing the hymn names in the margin. Probably my favorite thing I have marked are all of the scriptures used in Handel’s Messiah.

  9. You would hate my guts if you saw my books. I write in all of them and dog ear favorite places. My scriptures are the same and it bugs my husband to no end. Then, he’s only read the Book of Mormon once and that was last year, despite being a member all his life.

    I recently lost two of my very favorite books which were all marked up and used often. I am bereft.

  10. Although I would never do that to a book I’d borrowed. Although I did it once to a book by Annie Dillard that I borrowed from the library. I bought them a new one.

  11. I extensively marked my mission scriptures, but found that I rarely came back to my markings even in a mission context. (Maybe the fact that European Catholics didn’t know or care much about the Bible had something to do with that.) The only memorable benefit of all my marking was when a Jehovah’s Witness, on seeing my heavily and brightly marked Bible as I turned the pages to find a passage to bash him with, remarked with genuine and sincere surprise that my Bible was “well studied.”

    Since then my scriptures have remained unmarked. I suspect that it is because of some compulsive, partially neurotic, deep-seated subconcsious psychological need for tidiness, to preserve dearly held books, or fear of committing myself to one interpretative position. Laziness is another possibility. I like to tell myself that it is so that I can come to the scriptures with a fresh new perspective each time I read.

  12. I NEVER write in books! A printed page is a form of art in itself that, I believe, should be respected. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    When it comes to scriptures, I like to create huge computer files of information. I haven’t figured out exactly how to organize all this yet, but I’m working on it.

    When I was in Course 12 SS we once had an entire lesson devoted to marking scriptures. I was horrified. It may have been the first time in my life when I was absolutely torn between a sense that I should be strictly obedient to what church leaders taught and my own personal conviction that marking up scriptures, for me, would detract from rather than enhance my scripture study.

    It was interesting in divinity school to notice a difference between people who came from traditions in which not just the text itself, but the object which contained the sacred text was considered holy and should be treated with reverence, and those who had no qualms about marking up their Bibles. In one of my courses we took an open-everything test; in previous years the professor had made it just open- Bible, but the students who refused to write in their Bibles on religious grounds considered this unfair.

  13. I mark up everything I read that isn’t a library book. I used to go crazy making notes in the margins–I didn’t feel I’d understood a paragraph until I summarized it. This round of school I’ve cut back. And I’ve quit marking scriptures altogether. I write my notes down in a separate book.

  14. It took me a long time to learn to mark scriptures, to make the text a cooperative writing and reading, rather than a static one.

    Still, I marked a number of cheap copies of the Book of Mormon in my time.

    As I’ve gotten older, books have become more consumeable to me.

    But the scriptures, they are a cooperative writing, the marking in them my part of joining in the process of creating them with meaning in my life.

  15. M&M, MaioCampo, Floyd, Judy Jones–thanks for sharing your methods. It’s interesting to hear people’s different approaches to this!

    Serenity, the situation with my classmate was definitely a bizarre one. The only thing I could think was that she was so caught up in paying attention to the lecture that she forgot that the book wasn’t actually hers and just started taking notes out of habit.

    Annegb, I might be horrified by your books, but then my own sister Eve–as she has confessed in this very thread–has been known to exhibit similar tendencies. (And somehow Kiskilili and I, the purists of the family when it comes to writing in books, have managed not to disown her.)

    RT, that comment about later realizing your insights were actually inaccurate made me laugh–I’ve had a similar experience! But I like your point that the act of marking itself is for some people an important part of their devotional activity. That seems to go along well with what Stephen said about it being a process of cooperative writing; when put like that, I can see its appeal.

    Dave, I definitely agree that marking can be a substitute for actually engaging the text; my Seminary experience would back that up. People reading the scriptures and marking what they find meaningful makes sense to me, even if I’m personally iffy about it, but I’m more than a little skeptical about the value of marking scriptures that someone else told you that you should find meaningful.

    JWL, that’s an interesting observation about fear of committing yourself to one interpretive position being a possible motivation. I’d never thought of that in this context, but I can identify a lot with that concern, so maybe there’s more behind my behavior than I realized. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Katya, it’s good to hear from another member of the not-writing-in-books club. And I really like the idea of linking scriptures to hymns. Some of my favorite scriptures are my favorites because they have such good musical associations.

    Kiskilili, that’s a great story about the open-Bible test; I hadn’t thought much about how this might play out in different religious traditions. (As you know, we theologians don’t crack our Bibles much, so this hasn’t come up for me much in an academic context.)

  16. Lynnette, I have to admit I took a DEEP breath before sending you a couple of my books a few months ago. waiting to hear you politely struggle not to be horrified at my extensive (and illegible) scrawlings. I’m in treatment now, and I’ve cut back to just a few underlinings and occasional notes. Heartfelt thanks to you and Kiskilili for not abandoning me to my addiction and for always setting such an impeccable example of textual purity.


  17. Hand-written marginalia are an absolute treasure trove for historical textual scholars.

    I personally must have a pencil in hand for any sort of productive reading—how on earth else do you remember the passages and points you need for later use? Which is why I sort of hate reading things on the computer.

  18. Rosalynde, I have hard time reading things on the computer for the same reason. But as I think Roasted Tomatoes said, I have to admit that when I reread my marked-up books I’m always stunned at the obviousness of my own comments. (Newsflash: pride bad! Baptism required for entrance to kingdom of heaven!)

    I keep a journal as part of my scripture study, but I’ve decided the value is in the act of writing things down itself, which is somehow significant to me for reasons I don’t completely understand. But what I’ve written usually makes me cringe later. I guess that’s the inevitable problem of journals. Treasure troves for scholars–minefields for authors. :>

  19. I know that people tend to read more slowly from a computer monitor than from a hard copy, but I don’t mind just reading and taking notes on the computer at the same time. The advantage is that I can add and remove highlights, marginal notes, and whatnot at will, and I know that a clean copy of the text is always just a few clicks away.

    Another advantage is that my typed notes are always legible. The same cannot be said for my handwritten notes, particularly given how little space there is in the margins of scriptures (and I don’t even use the tiny kind that you do, Lynnette!).

  20. This may be a little late to chime in, but I feel the same way as Lynnette. Marking scriptures is distracting and messy. I do occasionally write in academic books, but only out of necessity. Here is my rule of thumb: If you only plan to read it once, mark it. For me, the scriptures fell out of that catagory years ago.

  21. Nice to hear from another sympathetic perspective, AWS!

    Like Rosalynde and Eve, I have a hard time reading things from a computer. Though in my case it’s (obviously!) not since I want to be able to mark things up–I just find it more difficult, though I’m not entirely sure why. I love that I can frequently look up articles and access their full text online, without the bother of going to the library, but I find that if I really want to read (and not just skim) the article, I do better with a hard copy. So I’m impressed that you’ve converted to reading straight off the computer, Ziff.

    Eve, it was very kind of you to loan me your books, so I’ve done my best not to look a gift book in the margins. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  22. My experience is close to what RT, JWL, and Eve describe. It is embarassing for me to read my missionary scriptures and see the things I once thought were important. Lots of passages were marked in red for the sole purpose of proving Adventists and JWs wrong. It is humiliating to realize the extent to which I was a kind of bully, a spiritual goon who got a little enjoyment out of laying the smackdown on people. Like Ziff, I now prefer to read online, and keep an online journal of the thoughts and impressions that come to me as I read. And an online journal has the advantage over a pen and paper one in that the online version can be edited. Ink on paper is forever, which is why my missionary journal has gone to dwell in everlasting burnings.

  23. I really don’t think that writing in your scriptures is that big of a deal. I know that they are sacred, but its a way to remember all of the feelings that you felt when you read it. I know that because I write my thoughts and feelings in my scriptures, it has helped me a lot and I love doing it. ๐Ÿ˜€ I hope that all you who are against this will just take into perspective the fact that its YOUR scriptures, and you don’t have to tell anybody what you do to them. Enjoy them and get inspired. ๐Ÿ™‚


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