Reading Actively

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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