Using a Pretty Pen and Pencil as a Lever and My Mind as a Fulcrum to the Text: Theoria (thinking), Poiesis (making), & Praxis (Doing)

Kevin Hodgson, @dogtrax, recently cited Austin Kleon’s newish book, Reading with a Pencil, in the tweet below.


I responded with my own tweet and scanned sample page where I read with a pencil (and pen and highlighter and marker).


This short exchange reminded me how I had re-invigorated my own reading life over the last several years.  It happened in part because of the new digital annotation tools I folded into my own professional reading but also by the hand annotations I was making in my personal reading.  I think it all started with the joy of the tools.

I have been a very amateur calligrapher over the years. I taught adult education classes in calligraphy that were so much fun, but I let circumstance draw me away from that.  I still had the tools and I always meant to get back to my projects including a map of our farm and some poetry to frame for my children.  What I’m saying is that I think pens and paper are a form of alchemy, of magick, and that their spell over me is an old one.

The urge to apply this magic to the page is a natural one.  So much white space to be shared. So much good to note in the writer’s hard work.  The page is a map, a blazed trail, for the reader.  The urge to mark “This way be dragons” cannot be denied. Isn’t that what we do when we annotate a page?

Here are my tools (some of them,anyway). The picture makes me think of a very large family reunion but not one that meets only so often.  This family is in reach all the time.

A collection of annotatographica

If I had more time (such a stupid refrain) I would expand into sketchnoting, scrapbooking, zine making, and calligraphy projects.  These tools beckon me to longer forays and happier feldgangs.

The rediscovery of the joys of the tools has drawn me into the joys of the mental tools of slow, engage, creeping quiet reading. When I say creeping  I am reminded of a Japanese tractor we onced owned, a Yanmar 2010.  That tiny tractor had what is known in the farmer parlance as a “creeper gear”.  This gear is super slow and is especially handy when you want to put pressure via chain on…anything.  For example, you could attach a chain to a stump, engage the creeper gear, pull tight, and then go back to the stump with an ax or a pry bar and yank on it while your handy Yanmar in creeper gear keeps tugging. You will win eventually unless you bit off a stump bigger than you can chew.  I use these tools on a text in much the same way, pulling out the meaning with the fulcrum on my mind and the tools as my levers:  theoria (thinking), poiesis (making), and praxis (doing).

Yes, that is a satisfying analogy.


  1. // Reply

    I used to mark up books and reports I was reading, using highlighters like you show. However, in recent years most of my reading is of blog articles, pdf reports, etc., that I open on the internet. My annotations have mostly been part of the Marginal Syllabus effort, as well as those of videos on Vialogues.

    Here’s a PDF that you uploaded for me when I was first learning about

    It’s a report from the 1990s that was a basis for me starting the Tutor/Mentor Connection. I had marked it up when I first read it in the 1990s and went through it again using

    I’ve done this with a few other papers I’ve read, but have always been reluctant to put work by others into the online annotation platforms, without having express permission. I think you and Kevin have reflected on this often.

    1. // Reply

      First, I certainly respect your concern for seeking permission. I have been burned a few times by assuming it was OK to use someone’s work publicly. I assumed too much, but only out of trust, not malice. The digital universe can be a “perilous state”.
      Second, I never dive deeply enough into your work, Dan. I am sorry for that because I am never sorry once I do. I learn so much. Mea culpes to the max for that. Third, wouldn’t it be nice if had a visual element like mobile phones do with different ‘alphabets” including emojis and image stamps? I think I will suggest that. Probably a way to do it inside one of the annotation text boxes. Hmmm, thanks for provoking and evoking as ever.

  2. // Reply

    Lovely, Terry. I also adore writing instruments of many kinds, as well as well-textured papers. I LOVE scrapbooking, yet haven’t done it for eons. Thanks for urging me back to that art/craft. Like many others, and some of your references, my current annotation tends to be digital – Kindle notes and They are not “bad,” but don’t provide the tactile reward.

  3. // Reply

    Took me forever to approve this comment. Sorry. I think the word tactile is perfect as is ‘feedback’ and ‘haptic’. The sense of touch is, I think, the last sense to go when we die. There is a reason for that I think. It’s because it the first one we have when we are born. I think we realize this instinctively when we hear Helen Keller’s story the first time. So…let us celebrate and practice the discipline of touch in our lives. Thanks for reminding me of this.

  4. // Reply

    I missed this because I was not feeling well this week. Today, feeling better but still not quite 100%, I have been spending the morning with my pens and pencils – they always rejuvenate me

    1. // Reply

      Me, too. gotta make me some java (some really juicy Guatemalen) and get back to some old school annotating. Thanks for sharing your tool joy, too.

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