The first has all the standard sets and best sellers – unread, untouched. (This deluded individual owns woodpulp 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.)
I probably fall between categories two and three: I have a great many books, all of them dipped into, many of them read through, and the important ones (OK, the ones that have most influenced my own thinking) marked and scribbled in throughout (though I hope I never reduce a book to the kind of mess Adler seems so proud of).
But why is marking up a book an important part of active reading? According to Adler,
First, it keeps you awake. (And I don't mean merely conscious; I mean 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.
He goes on to describe one way of marking books, which sounds like a slightly more complex version of my own approach. My own version of marginal notations is:
- Vertical line – important passage (2 lines indicates very important)
- * – quotable remark
- ! – surprising statement
- ? – something I don’t understand
- !? – doubtful statement
- × – statement I disagree with
Finally Adler replies to the objection that this kind of annotation will force you to read more slowly.
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. . . . 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.In other words, writing in your books is an aid to the art of slow reading, which ties in with my blog entry some months ago on reading aloud.