How to Mark a Book
By Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.
You know you have to read "between the lines" to get the most out of
anything. I want to persuade you to do something equally important in
the course of your reading. I want to persuade you to write between
the lines. Unless you do, you are not likely to do the most efficient
kind of reading.
I contend, quite bluntly, that marking up a book is not an act of
mutilation but of love. You shouldn't mark up a book which isn't yours.
Librarians (or your friends) who lend you books expect you to keep
them clean, and you should. If you decide that I am right about the
usefulness of marking books, you will have to buy them. Most of the
world's great books are available today, in reprint editions.
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. An illustration may make the point clear. You buy a beefsteak
and transfer it from the butcher's icebox to your own. But you do not
own the beefsteak in the most important sense until you consume it
and get it into your bloodstream. I am arguing that books, too, must
be absorbed in your blood stream to do you any good.
Confusion about what it means to "own" a book leads people to a false
reverence for paper, binding, and type -- a respect for the physical
thing -- the craft of the printer rather than the genius of the author.
They forget that it is possible for a man to acquire the idea, to possess
the beauty, which a great book contains, without staking his claim by
pasting his bookplate inside the cover. Having a fine library doesn't
prove that its owner has a mind enriched by books; it proves nothing
more than that he, his father, or his wife, was rich enough to buy