Why Highlighting Doesn’t Help

I love books.

I don’t know if it’s the prospect of the knowledge that is contained in these books or just a romanticization of the aesthetic of physical books, but one way or another, ever since I was young, I’ve wanted to own as many books as possible. This has continued into my adult life, although admittedly, there were times when this obsession was financially inadvisable. Still, several years into my adult life, I have at least the start of a decent collection.

However, a number of years ago, I picked up a copy of “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell from eBay. The book itself is a bit self-helpy, but I do appreciate the exploration of the myth of the self-made man as well as the aspects which actually make some people more successful than others. However, what really bothered me about the book was how much the previous owner underlined passages and made notes in the margins of the book. There are entire paragraphs underlined, circled, and written over with this thick, ugly pen underline.

I’m all for people getting the most out of books, but this right here really bugs me.

In fact, highlights and notes in books have always been a pet peeve of mine for multiple reasons. Part of what I love about books is the way in which the text can speak to different readers in different ways. Adding highlights to a novel forever changes how that particular passage will be perceived by future readers.

But that’s a fiction book, right? Highlighting a novel would be akin to drawing arrows on a work of art to point out the important bits. Surely it’s different with a non-fiction book or a textbook, right?

Well, believe it or not, there’s actually a lot of evidence that highlighting and underlining text while reading actually keeps readers from remembering the material they read. According to an article in Scientific American, highlighting passages in textbooks doesn’t provide any improvement to students’ overall performances.

Students commonly report underlining, highlighting or otherwise marking material. It is simple and quick—but it does little to improve performance. In controlled studies, highlighting has failed to help U.S. Air Force basic trainees, children and remedial students, as well as typical undergraduates. Underlining was ineffective regardless of text length and topic, whether it was aerodynamics, ancient Greek schools or Tanzania. (Scientific American)


The act of highlighting a passage actually tricks you into thinking you’ll be more likely to remember it. Even when re-reading a text, having highlights inevitably means you’ll end up focusing on individual sentences rather than the meaning of the whole text. Highlighting is a quick and easy way to make it seem like you’re absorbing information, but in actuality, you’re keeping yourself from absorbing any new information and ruining a perfectly good book for anyone else who ever wants to try and read it.

A much more effective method I’ve found when reading texts that you have a harder time understanding is active reading, where you re-read different passages, break them down, and tell what you read back to yourself in your own words. It’s a lot more work, but it helps a lot when you need to go back and study things. If you also have separate notes written, you can then, instead of re-reading the textbook itself, review the things you wrote yourself. This means you’ll have a much stronger emotional connection to the subject while revisiting it.

Bottom line: don’t write in your books. We have other books made for that; they’re called notebooks. That way, you don’t end up scribbling all over a copy of a book that you later sell on eBay to some weird guy who uses it to complain about you on the internet…

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