27 March 2008

The art of scribbling in books

I recently came across an interesting article by Mortimer Adler entitled ‘How to Mark a Book’, which amounts to a useful summary of the art of active reading. He suggests there are three kinds of book owner:
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
And, of course, I make any additional notes necessary to explain the marks. One idea of Adler’s that I will probably add to my system is his use of the front and back fly leafs to create a summary and personal index of the book.

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.

1 comment:

kdzugan said...

If your enjoyed Dr. Adler’s article, “How to Mark a Book” you may want to read his book, “How to Read a Book” from which his article was taken.

Here is my experience with the book. I had been a voracious reader all my life. I never thought that I needed to know anything more about how to read. However 1990 I read about a book by someone named Mortimer Adler whom I had never heard of. The title of the book was “How to Read a Book.” Even though I thought I knew everything about how to read I became intrigued by the title. I finally bought the book. I read it and then I read it again, and again, and again. Over the course of several years Dr. Adler dramatically changed what I read, how I read, and why I read. I used to read predominantly to be entertained. Now I read to learn. Using what Dr. Adler taught me, I now get in order of magnitude more out of books that I ever did before.

Dr. Adler was an educator, philosopher, lecturer, and author with a prodigious output of over 50 books and more than 200 articles.

For more information on Mortimer Adler and his work, visit The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas

Ken Dzugan
Senior Fellow and Archivist
The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas