Reading Actively

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Mortimer J Adler

I’m not sure if it’s weird to have a favorite essay, but mine has been “How to Mark a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler since I first read it in 9th grade. I had a high school English teacher who had a genius way of pushing his students to understand and analyze what they read without them ever knowing. I remember the first time I ever made a real connection in a book. It was in my 9th grade English class and we had just finished reading Falkner’s As I Lay Dying. I struggled to get through the book, as many people do, getting lost in the ambiguous sentences and strange perspective-shifting structure. The day after we finished reading, my teacher assigned our class to read Adler’s essay. His aim was to teach us the importance of reading actively. He explained to the class that we could simply go through the rest of high school reading and writing without ever understanding what we read. The gravity of the books we read and their significance in our own life would never been fully realized unless we learned to read actively. Adler writes:

 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. But 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…I am arguing that books, too, must be absorbed in your bloodstream to do you any good.

Like my teacher, Adler wanted to impress upon his readers that there is nothing delicate about a book. A book is a living and breathing creature that changes every time you open it. You cannot have full ownership over anything until you make it your own, and books are no exception.

 After reading this essay, my teacher assigned the class to read As I Lay Dying again. He said that he would be checking for book notes every day until we finished the book and that he expected to see colors, scratches, doodles, notes, lists, underlines and circles. We all complied, unaware of the gift he was giving us with this assignment.

 It only took me about 50 pages to realize how powerful Adler’s advice was. By marking and draining my brain onto the page I was able to make connections that I had completely missed the first time.

 Adler wrote, “marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love.” I want to challenge all of you to make this act of love. You will enrich not only your own experience as a reader, but you will give your books the attention that they deserve.

About Eleanor Haeg

Eleanor Haeg is an English major and Creative Writing minor at Washington and Lee but hails from Minneapolis.

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4 Responses to Reading Actively

  1. rodsmith says:

    Even Faulkner had notions that his more difficult books should be printed with multi-colored texts to provide immediate clues as to speaker and thread of reference. Now that we have rainbow printers and various colors of paper and screen capability, what’s holding us back. Maybe it’s hard to overcome the black-and-white standard set by Gutenburg’s set type, tuxedos, nuns, dalmations, prison pajamas. Failing the color coordination, marginal notes and notebooks, audio notes and everything else that increases interactivity further animates the radical, outrageous and indispensable act of reading books.

  2. Amanda Newton says:

    I also had a creative writing teacher in high school who checked for notes in our books. Each day, she looked for at least two sentences underlined and one comment on every page. To fail to do so would be the equivalent of not having read at all. While I’m not sure I would follow such a stringent structure today (although I do think it was probably necessary for a bunch of rowdy 17-year-olds), I now appreciate her encouragement to mark up the page. It keeps my eyes active and my mind engaged. Even though I don’t remember the book we were reading, I do remember the way in which she taught us to read. The beginnings of a liberal arts education!

  3. Elise Petracca says:

    I learned to annotate my sophomore year in high school and it made reading an entirely different activity for me. Marking up the pages and writing almost-illegible notes in the margins is really satisfying. I like the idea of finishing a book and having something to show for it, something to go back to long after the last word was read or the last note was written.

  4. Pingback: What is Marginalia? – Jeffrey K Weddle

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