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Abuse Your Books

September 4, 2007

Last Thursday the Chicago Tribune published a story, by its regular print culture and book reporter, Patrick T. Reardon (right), on the “ethics of handling” books. Since this is the second time in about a week that a Reardon piece has been discussed here, I felt a headshot was in order. [Disclaimer: I’m not being paid by him to publicize his work.]

A number of old and new topics appeared in the article: dog-earring pages, highlighting, ripping out pages, burning books, throwing books away, and marking in the text. It was Mr. Reardon’s take on marking that ruffled my feathers somewhat. It goes against the core of what constitutes a real part of my modest success in the academy. Here’s what he said in that section of the article:


Writing on pages

I use … dog-earing because I can’t write on a book page. I just can’t.

Friends and colleagues do it all the time. I know because, when I borrow one of their books, I see the notes in the margins, and the underlinings, and the exclamation points and question marks scrawled here and there. I’ve tried this a couple times myself, but it’s never lasted more than a few pages into a book.

I could blame my handwriting. But I suspect that, even if I had perfect penmanship, I’d still find the idea of writing in a book a violation of the sanctity of the page. I could plead that I don’t want to leave a messy page for the next reader, but that would be a cop-out.

Not everyone is so persnickety. Mary Yockey, the book buyer for Anderson’s Bookshops in Naperville and Downers Grove, says she enjoys reading her father-in-law’s marginal notes in American history books he lends to her and her husband. “It puts us inside his mind and tells us what he was thinking,” she says. “He is like our guide.”


Now I concede that I too can’t make myself burn a book (I’m reminded of Nazi Germany here, probably like several others). I also can’t tear out pages or easily throw books away (my wife can testify to this). I have few problems, however, with dog-earing or highlighting – and zero with writing on a page. I dog-ear paperbacks without any pangs of conscience. I mean, they’re just paperbacks. And the only reason I don’t highlight is personal preference: it doesn’t help me remember ~what~ I’m reading.

But I’m a fierce advocate of writing on the page. I share none of Mr. Reardon’s qualms about “the sanctity” of a the leaf. The book was made for man, not man for books. The notion of a folio’s sanctity is mostly a bygone relic of the pre-paperback era. While I can understand the qualms of collectors, preserving a paperback’s page is primarily a nineteenth-century, Victorian-era ethic. It should’ve been consigned to history’s dustbin along with separate spheres (men in public, women in charge of the hearth), Prohibition, overt imperialism, colonialism, painted ladies, and cabinets of curiosities.

Why? In this I follow the advice of Mortimer J. Adler to the letter – no pun intended. Of course at the mention of Adler, friends of mine are probably mocking me right now. To them this is another case of a doctorate finding a way to twist everything around her or his dissertation topic. But in this case the application is direct and well-founded.

In his 1940 book, How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education, Adler advocated for active reading. For him this meant having a writing utensil in hand to both take notes, on a separate sheet of paper, and mark your book. Adler encouraged writing in one’s book to aid in the understanding arguments, seeing key terms, remembering key passages, and even to follow more attentively (ala 1970s speed reading pointer devices). Without a pen or pencil in hand, one tends to lapse into the passive reading we all apply to novels and newspapers. And of course Adler sought for his readers to apply this active-reading style to his idea of “the great books” (conspicuously listed at the end of the 1940 edition).

Now the image to the right, and the 1940 book I refer to above, are not the same. They’re similar but not exactly alike. The 1972 Adler/Charles Van Doren book is based on Adler’s earlier tome, but contains significant additions and changes. But the 1972 version still advocates for active reading and marking. Like me, they believe the Victorian-era-“sanctity-of-the-page” ethic is of no real consequence today. Except in the world of book collecting, today all preservation concerns ought to take a back seat to learning. For wasn’t learning one of the primary reasons books were invented?

Whenever the page is inviolate, our minds remain blank slates to be written upon by television, the movies, and our immediate friends. It’s not that we can’t learn from those three, but why limit ourselves? And shouldn’t we apply more active reading habits to novels and newspapers anyway? Perhaps we would get more out of all print culture – including the internet – if we were more concerned with reading active readers?

As Mr. Reardon noted in the opening lines of his article, books are sometimes a “collection of ideas.” How can we engage those ideas if we don’t take care to notice key terms, propositions, and arguments? That certainly involves note-taking. And reading shouldn’t be confined to a desk, where separate sheets of paper are easy to manage for notes. If we want keep our minds engaged while on increasingly cramped planes and trains, we shouldn’t be afraid of writing our reactions and thoughts onto the book’s page.

Finally, I can personally testify to the wonders of active reading. Before unlearning from Adler, I treated all books as if they were Holy Objects. My only vice was occasional sloppy page turning that would sometimes result in a small tear. I’ll never forget a librarian chastising me on that.

But at the end of college I first picked up the 1940 version of How to Read a Book. The book changed my life. Adler’s encouragement to mark in one’s book helped me to overcome older, sloppy reading habits. The book taught me how to look for arguments in all classes of print. I had used highlighters before, but that clearly didn’t help me engage the author or the text. But Adler’s encouragements, of course wrapped in talk about philosophy and the great books, actually helped me to understand my undergraduate science textbooks better. Yes, you read that correctly: being a better active reading aided me in being a better scientist.

Adler’s encouragements were meant for the humanities primarily, and I eventually applied his lessons there. Adler is certainly to be credited for some of the passable work I did as a graduate student. With that work in mind I feel that I am living proof that it is better to mark in a book than not. Treating a book as an object to be studied and learned does more for one than venerating it.

The moral of my story is this: abuse your books. So long as your larger goal is to be a better citizen, student, and person, your conscience won’t interfere. – TL


PS – In the article Mr. Reardon asked readers to report their own ethics of book handling. Here’s the contact info. as given there:

“Send an e-mail to, or a letter to Tempo, Chicago Tribune, TT500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611. Make sure to include your name, the city or town where you live and your phone number. We’ll print a selection of the comments we receive.”


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  1. Tim —

    First, thanks for all the mentions on your blog.

    In your comments on my book ethics story, you make a strong argument — and I agree wholeheartedly, sort of.

    My difficulty with writing in books is an emotional thing, and a personal thing. I wouldn't condemn anyone who does it. It's just not for me. I can't do it.

    What I can do, and what I do do, is something very cumbersome, but which will probably give you an idea of how deep my aversion to marking up a book is.

    When I'm reading a book as research for a story or to do a review, I keep a business card or some small piece of paper in the book with my bookmark.

    Any time I come across something that I might want to mention in the story or review or that I might want to use for quick reference in writing that story or review, I mark the page number and a single word on the card. The word is a reminder of the sentence or paragraph that caught my interest.

    Once I finish the book — or, more usually, several times during the reading — I'll photocopy the pages that I've noted on the card. (For a 500-page book, this could be 200 pages.)

    Then, with an array of highlighters in 7-8 colors, I'll mark up the photocopy pages. I use different colors to relate to particular aspects of the story — for example, blue is almost always used for biographical information.

    Once I've finished reading the book and marked up my photocopy, I'm then ready to go on with whatever other research I have to do before I start to write.

    As you may imagine, the photocopied pages are a mishmash of bright colors, often with a note here or there that I've added.
    While it's a pain to have to do the photocopying and go through the pages a second time, it does provide a second look at the book's points and also gives me my notes in a much more desk-friendly form.

    To my mind, this gives me the best of both worlds — a pristine book and a marked-up version that I can keep in my files with other notes.

    I would NEVER expect anyone else to employ this very clunky system.

    But, for me, this works.

    Pat Reardon


  2. Pat,

    Thanks for coming by. It looks as if, according to this Scott McLemee article, that we fall strictly in line with Roland Barthe's generalization about those who produce marginilia, and those who don't. C'est la vie!

    I do understand the virtues of an unmarked book. I'm sometimes dismayed, at a second reading of a marked up book, with my juvenile first observations and exclamations. Most of that dismay arises from my changed political commitments. Then again, it's nice to see how I've grown, how I'm human.

    – TL


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