How to Mark a Book
By Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.
From The Saturday Review of Literature, July 6, 1941
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
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 them.
There are three kinds of book owners. 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.)
Is it false respect, you may ask, to preserve intact and unblemished a beautifully printed book, an
elegantly bound edition? Of course not. I'd no more scribble all over a first edition of 'Paradise
Lost' than I'd give my baby a set of crayons and an original Rembrandt. I wouldn't mark up a
painting or a statue. Its soul, so to speak, is inseparable from its body. And the beauty of a rare
edition or of a richly manufactured volume is like that of a painting or a statue.
But the soul of a book "can" be separate from its body. A book is more like the score of a piece
of music than it is like a painting. No great musician confuses a symphony with the printed
sheets of music. Arturo Toscanini reveres Brahms, but Toscanini's score of the G minor
Symphony is so thoroughly marked up that no one but the maestro himself can read it. The
reason why a great conductor makes notations on his musical scores -- marks them up again and
again each time he returns to study them--is the reason why you should mark your books. If your
respect for magnificent binding or typography gets in the way, buy yourself a cheap edition and
pay your respects to the author.
Why is marking up a book indispensable to reading? 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. Let me develop these three points.
If reading is to accomplish anything more than passing time, it must be active. You can't let your
eyes glide across the lines of a book and come up with an understanding of what you have read.
Now an ordinary piece of light fiction, like, say,Gone with the Wind, doesn't require the most
active kind of reading. The books you read for pleasure can be read in a state of relaxation, and
nothing is lost. But a great book, rich in ideas and beauty, a book that raises and tries to answer
great fundamental questions, demands the most active reading of which you are capable. You
don't absorb the ideas of John Dewey the way you absorb the crooning of Mr. Vallee. You have
to reach for them. That you cannot do while you're asleep.
If, when you've finished reading a book, the pages are filled with your notes, you know that you
read actively. The most famous "active" reader of great books I know is President Hutchins, of
the University of Chicago. He also has the hardest schedule of business activities of any man I
know. He invariably reads with a pencil, and sometimes, when he picks up a book and pencil in
the evening, he finds himself, instead of making intelligent notes, drawing what he calls 'caviar
factories' on the margins. When that happens, he puts the book down. He knows he's too tired to
read, and he's just wasting time.
But, you may ask, why is writing necessary? Well, the physical act of writing, with your own
hand, brings words and sentences more sharply before your mind and preserves them better in
your memory. To set down your reaction to important words and sentences you have read, and
the questions they have raised in your mind, is to preserve those reactions and sharpen those
Even if you wrote on a scratch pad, and threw the paper away when you had finished writing,
your grasp of the book would be surer. But you don't have to throw the paper away. The margins
(top as bottom, and well as side), the end-papers, the very space between the lines, are all
available. They aren't sacred. And, best of all, your marks and notes become an integral part of
the book and stay there forever. You can pick up the book the following week or year, and there
are all your points of agreement, disagreement, doubt, and inquiry. It's like resuming an
interrupted conversation with the advantage of being able to pick up where you left off.
And that is exactly what reading a book should be: a conversation between you and the author.
Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; naturally, you'll have the proper
humility as you approach him. But don't let anybody tell you that a reader is supposed to be
solely on the receiving end. Understanding is a two-way operation; learning doesn't consist in
being an empty receptacle. The learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even
has to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. And marking a
book is literally an expression of differences, or agreements of opinion, with the author.
There are all kinds of devices for marking a book intelligently and fruitfully. Here's the way I do
Underlining (or highlighting): of major points, of important or forceful statements.
Vertical lines at the margin: to emphasize a statement already underlined.
Star, asterisk, or other doo-dad at the margin: to be used sparingly, to emphasize the
ten or twenty most important statements in the book. (You may want to fold the bottom
comer of each page on which you use such marks. It won't hurt the sturdy paper on which
most modern books are printed, and you will be able take the book off the shelf at any
time and, by opening it at the folded-corner page, refresh your recollection of the book.)
Numbers in the margin: to indicate the sequence of points the author makes in
developing a single argument.
Numbers of other pages in the margin: to indicate where else in the book the author
made points relevant to the point marked; to tie up the ideas in a book, which, though
they may be separated by many pages, belong together.
Circling or highlighting of key words or phrases.
Writing in the margin, or at the top or bottom of the page, for the sake of: recording
questions (and perhaps answers) which a passage raised in your mind; reducing a
complicated discussion to a simple statement; recording the sequence of major points
right through the books. I use the end-papers at the back of the book to make a personal
index of the author's points in the order of their appearance.
The front end-papers are to me the most important. Some people reserve them for a fancy
bookplate. I reserve them for fancy thinking. After I have finished reading the book and making
my personal index on the back end-papers, I turn to the front and try to outline the book, not
page by page or point by point (I've already done that at the back), but as an integrated structure,
with a basic unity and an order of parts. This outline is, to me, the measure of my understanding
of the work.
If you're a die-hard anti-book-marker, you may object that the margins, the space between the
lines, and the end-papers don't give you room enough. All right. How about using a scratch pad
slightly smaller than the page-size of the book -- so that the edges of the sheets won't protrude?
Make your index, outlines and even your notes on the pad, and then insert these sheets
permanently inside the front and back covers of the book.
Or, you may say that this business of marking books is going to slow up your reading. 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. There is no such thing as the right speed
for intelligent reading. Some things should be read quickly and effortlessly and some should be
read slowly and even laboriously. 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. If this be
your aim, as it should be, you will not be impatient if it takes more time and effort to read a great
book than it does a newspaper.
You may have one final objection to marking books. You can't lend them to your friends because
nobody else can read them without being distracted by your notes. Furthermore, you won't want
to lend them because a marked copy is kind of an intellectual diary, and lending it is almost like
giving your mind away.
If your friend wishes to read your Plutarch's Lives, Shakespeare, or The Federalist Papers, tell
him gently but firmly, to buy a copy. You will lend him your car or your coat -- but your books
are as much a part of you as your head or your heart.
Reading selection: “Learning to Read” excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, Malcolm X was one of the most articulate and powerful
leaders of black America during the 1960s. A street hustler convicted of robbery in 1946, he
spent seven years in prison, where he educated himself and became a disciple of Elijah
Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam. In the days of the civil rights movement,
Malcolm X emerged as the leading spokesman for black separatism, a philosophy that urged
black Americans to cut political, social, and economic ties with the white community. After a
pilgrimage to Mecca, the capital of the Muslim world, in 1964, he became an orthodox Muslim,
adopted the Muslim name El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and distanced himself from the teachings of
the black Muslims. He was assassinated in 1965. In the following excerpt from his
autobiography (1965), coauthored with Alex Haley and published the year of his death,
Malcolm X describes his self-education.
It was because of my letters that I happened to stumble upon starting to acquire some
kind of a homemade education.
I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in
letters that I wrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad. In the street, I had been the most
articulate hustler out there. I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to
write simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional. How would I sound
writing in slang, the way 1 would say it, something such as, “Look, daddy, let me pull your coat
about a cat, Elijah Muhammad—”
Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read
something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is
due entirely to my prison studies.
It had really begun back in the Charlestown Prison, when Bimbi first made me feel envy
of his stock of knowledge. Bimbi had always taken charge of any conversations he was in, and I
had tried to emulate him. But every book I picked up had few sentences which didn’t contain
anywhere from one to nearly all of the words that might as well have been in Chinese. When I
just skipped those words, of course, I really ended up with little idea of what the book said. So I
had come to the Norfolk Prison Colony still going through only book-reading motions. Pretty
soon, I would have quit even these motions, unless I had received the motivation that I did.
I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some
words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was
sad. I couldn’t even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a
dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.
I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized
so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some
kind of action, I began copying.
In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed
on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.
I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on
the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.
I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words—immensely proud to realize
that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in
the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant.
I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first
page right now, that “aardvark” springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a longtailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its
tongue as an anteater does for ants.
I was so fascinated that I went on—I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same
experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and
places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally
the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet—and I went on into the B’s. That was the
way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so
much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and
writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.
I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick
up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has
read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then
until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was
reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr.
Muhammad’s teachings, my correspondence, my visitors—usually Ella and Reginald—and my
reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to
then, I never had been so truly free in my life.
The Norfolk Prison Colony’s library was in the school building. A variety of classes was
taught there by instructors who came from such places as Harvard and Boston universities. The
weekly debates between inmate teams were also held in the school building. You would be
astonished to know how worked up convict debaters and audiences would get over subjects like
“Should Babies Be Fed Milk?”
Available on the prison library’s shelves were books on just about every general subject.
Much of the big private collection that Parkhurst had willed to the prison was still in crates and
boxes in the back of the library—thousands of old books. Some of them looked ancient: covers
faded; old-time parchment-looking binding. Parkhurst, I’ve mentioned, seemed to have been
principally interested in history and religion. He had the money and the special interest to have a
lot of books that you wouldn’t have in general circulation. Any college library would have been
lucky to get that collection.
As you can imagine, especially in a prison where there was heavy emphasis on
rehabilitation, an inmate was smiled upon if he demonstrated an unusually intense interest in
books. There was a sizable number of well-read inmates, especially the popular debaters, Some
were said by many to be practically walking encyclopedias.
They were almost celebrities. No university would ask any student to devour literature as
I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and understand.
I read more in my room than in the library itself. An inmate who was known to read a lot
could check out more than the permitted maximum number of books. I preferred reading in the
total isolation of my own room.
When I had progressed to really serious reading, every night at about ten P.M. I would be
outraged with the “lights out.” It always seemed to catch me right in the middle of something
Fortunately, right outside my door was a corridor light that cast a glow into my room.
The glow was enough to read by, once my eyes adjusted to it. So when “lights out” came, I
would sit on the floor where I could continue reading in that glow.
At one-hour intervals the night guards paced past every room. Each time I heard the
approaching footsteps, I jumped into bed and feigned sleep. And as soon as the guard passed, I
got back out of bed onto the floor area of that light-glow, where I would read for another fiftyeight minutes—until the guard approached again. That went on until three or four every morning.
Three or four hours of sleep a night was enough for me. Often in the years in the streets I had
slept less than that.
The teachings of Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been “whitened”—when
white men had written history books, the black man simply had been left out...I never will
forget how shocked I was when I began reading about slavery’s total horror. It made such an
impact upon me that it later became one of my favorite subjects when I became a minister of
Mr. Muhammad’s. The world’s most monstrous crime, the sin and the blood on the white
man’s hands, are almost impossible to believe...I read descriptions of atrocities, saw those
illustrations of black slave women tied up and flogged with whips; of black mothers watching
their babies being dragged off, never to be seen by their mothers again; of dogs after slaves,
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