readers, reading for blood, know how much it helps to read armed
with a pencil.
Mr. Adler tells how, when, and why to use one.
You know you have to read "between the lines" to get the most out
of anything. I want to persuade you to do something equally
important in the course of your reading. I want to persuade you to
"write between the lines." Unless you do, you are not likely to do
the most efficient kind of reading.
I contend, quite bluntly, that marking up a book is not an act of
mutilation but of love.
You shouldn't mark up a book that isn't yours. Librarians (or your
friends) who lend you books expect you to keep them clean, and you
should. If you decide that I am right about the usefulness of
marking books, you will have to buy them. Most of the world's
great books are available today, in reprint editions, at less than
There are two ways in which one can own a book. The first is the
property right you establish by paying for it, just as you pay for
clothes and furniture. This act of purchase is only the prelude to
possession. Full ownership comes only when you have made it a part
of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it is by
writing in it. An illustration may make the point clear. You buy a
beefsteak and transfer it from the most important sense until you
consume it into your bloodstream. I am arguing that books, too,
must be absorbed in your bloodstream to do you any good.
Confusion about what it means to own a book leads people to a
false reverence for a paper, binding, and type--a respect for the
physical thing that it is possible for a man to acquire the idea,
to possess the beauty, which a great book contains, without
staking his claim by pasting his bookplate inside the cover.
Having a fine library doesn't prove that its owner has a mind
enriched by books; it proves nothing more than that he, his
father, or his wife, was rich enough to buy them.
There are three kinds of book owners. The first has all the
standard sets and best-sellers--unread, untouched. (This deluded
individual owns wood pulp and ink, not books.) The second has a
great many books--a few of them read through, most of them dipped
into, but all of them as clean and shiny as the day they were
bought. (This person would probably like to make books his own,
but is restrained by a false respect for their physical
appearance.) The third has a few books or many--every one of them
dog-eared and dilapidated, shaken and loosened by continual use,
marked and scribbled in from front to back. (This man owns books.)
Is it false respect, you may ask, to preserve intact and
unblemished a beautifully printed book, an elegantly bound
edition? Of course not. I'd no more scribble all over a first
edition of Paradise Lost than I'd give my baby a set of
crayons and an original Rembrandt! I wouldn't mark up a painting
or a statue. Its soul, so to speak, is inseparable from its body.
And the beauty of a rare edition or of a richly manufactured
volume is like that of a painting or a statue.
But the soul of a book can be separated from its body. A book is
more like the score of a place of music than it is like a
painting. No great musician confuses a symphony with the printed
sheets of music. Arturo Toscanini reveres Brahms, but Toscanini's
core of the C-minor Symphony is so thoroughly marked up that no
one but the maestro himself can read it. The reason why a great
conductor makes notations on his musical scores--marks them up
again and again each time he returns to study them--is the reason
why you should mark your books. If your respect for magnificent
binding or typography gets in the way, buy yourself a cheap
edition and pay your respects to the author.
Why is marking up a book indispensable to reading? First, it keeps
you awake. (And I don't mean merely conscious; I mean wide awake.)
In the second place, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and
thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The
marked book is usually the thought-through book. Finally, writing
helps you remember the thoughts you had, or the thoughts the
author expressed. Let me develop these three points.
If reading is to accomplish anything more than passing time, it
must be active. You can't let your eyes glide across the lines of
a book and come up with an understanding of what you have read.
Now an ordinary piece of light fiction, like say, Gone With The
Wind, doesn't require the most active kind of reading. The books
you read for pleasure can be read in a state of relaxation and
nothing is lost. But a great book rich in ideas and beauty, a book
that raises and tries to answer great fundamental questions,
demands the most active reading of which you are capable. You
don't absorb the ideas of John Dewey the way you absorb the
crooning of Mr. Vallee. You have to reach for them. That you
cannot do while you're asleep.
If, when you've finished reading a book, the pages are filled with
your notes, you know that you read actively. The most famous
active reader of great books I know is President Hutchins of the
University of Chicago. He also has the hardest schedule of
business activities of any man I know. He invariably reads with a
pencil, and sometimes, when he picks up a book and pencil in the
evening, he finds himself, instead of making intelligent notes,
drawing what he calls "caviar factories" on the margins. When that
happens, he puts the book down. He knows he's too tired to read,
and he's just wasting time.
But, you may ask, why is writing necessary? Well, the physical act
of writing, with your own hand, brings words and sentences more
sharply before your mind and preserves them better in your memory.
To set down your reaction to important words and sentences you
have read, and the questions they have raised in your mind, is to
preserve those reactions and sharpen those questions.
Even if you wrote on a scratch pad, and threw the paper away when
you had finished writing, your grasp of the book would be surer.
But you don't have to throw the paper away. The margins (top and
bottom, as well as side), the end-papers, the very space between
the lines, are all available. They aren't sacred. And, best of
all, your marks and notes become an integral part of the book and
stay there forever. You can pick up the book the following week or
year, and there are all your points of agreement, disagreement,
doubt, and inquiry. It's like resuming an interrupted conversation
with the advantage of being able to pick up where you left off.
And that is exactly what reading a book should be: a conversation
between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the
subject than you do; naturally, you'll have the proper humility as
you approach him. But don't let anybody tell you that a reader is
supposed to be solely on the receiving end. Understanding is a
two-way operation; learning doesn't consist in being an empty
receptacle. The learner has to question himself and question the
teacher. He even has to argue with the teacher, once he
understands what the teacher is saying. And marking a book is
literally an expression of your differences, or agreements of
opinion, with the author.
There are all kinds of devices
for marking a book intelligently and fruitfully. Here's the way I
Underlining: of major points,
of important or forceful statements.
Vertical lines at the margin:
to emphasize a statement already underlined.
Star, asterisk, or other
doo-dad at the margin: to be used sparingly, to emphasize the
ten or twenty most important statements in the book. (You may
want to fold the bottom corner of each page on which you use
such marks. It won't hurt the sturdy paper on which most modern
books are printed, and you will be able to take the book off the
shelf at any time and, by opening it at the folded-corner page,
refresh your recollection of the book.)
Numbers in the margin: to
indicate the sequence of points the author makes in developing a
Numbers of other pages in the
margin: to indicate where else in the book the author made
points relevant to the point marked; to tie up the ideas in a
book which, though they may be separated by many pages, belong
Circling of key words or
Writing in the margin, or at
the top or bottom of the page for the sake of: recording
questions (and perhaps answers) which a passage raised in your
mind: reducing a complicated discussion to a simple statement;
recording the sequence of major points right through the books.
I use the end-papers at the back of the book to make a personal
index of the author's points in the order of their appearance.
The front end-papers are, to
me, the most important. Some people reserve them for a fancy
bookplate. I reserve them for fancy thinking. After I have
finished reading the book and making my personal index on the
back end-papers, I turn to the front and try to outline the
book, not page by page, or point by point (I've already done
that at the back), but as an integrated structure, with a basic
unity and an order of parts. This outline is, to me, the measure
of my understanding of the work.
If you're a die-hard
anti-book-marker, you may object that the margins, the space
between the lines, and the end-papers don’t give you room
enough. All right. How about using a scratch pad slightly
smaller than the page size of a book--so that the edges of the
sheets won't protrude? Make your index, outlines, and even your
notes on the pad, and then insert these sheets permanently
inside the front and back covers of the book.
Or, you may say that this
business of marking books is going to slow up your reading. it
probably will. That's one of the reasons for doing it. Most of us
have been taken in by the notion that speed of reading is a
measure of our intelligence. There is no such thing as the right
speed for intelligent reading. Some things should be read quickly
and effortlessly, and some should be read slowly and even
laboriously. The sign of intelligence in reading is the ability to
read different things differently according to their worth. In the
case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you
can get through, but rather how many can get through you -- how
many you can make your own. A few friends are better than a
thousand acquaintances. If this be your aim, as it should be, you
will not be impatient if it takes more time and effort to read a
great book than it does a newspaper.
You may have one final objection to marking books. You can't lend
them to your friends because nobody else can read them without
being distracted by your notes. Furthermore, you won't want to
lend them because a marked copy is a kind of intellectual diary,
and lending it is almost like giving your mind away.
If your friend wishes to read your Plutarch's Lives, Shakespeare,
or The Federalist Papers, tell him gently but firmly to buy a
copy. You will lend him your car or your coat -- but your books
are as much a part of you as your head or your heart.
From Mortimer J. Adler's How to
Love a Book (1940).
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