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Marking Up Books: Mutilation or act of love?

10 September, 2008



Cleaning out my files, I came across Mortimer Adler’s 1940 essay, ‘How to Mark a Book’.


Some book lovers view people who mark up books as evil defacers, page graffitists. I regularly mark up books, even ones I borrow. (I do erase my markings before returning a borrowed book.)


What did Adler have in mind?



Marginalia - love it or loathe it?

Marginalia – love it or loathe it? (Photo credit: Robert Burdock)

Adler’s views


Adler thought we should not prize books as objects, but rather revere them for the ideas they contain. Marking up as you read lets you to understand and interact with the author’s ideas, so marking up is not as an act of mutilation but of love. Some of his ideas:


  • How many books you get through as a reader is less important than ‘how many can get through you’.
  • Book ownership has two stages. The first is when you buy the book. The second is when you engage deeply with it, letting its ideas get ‘into your bloodstream’.
  • Engaging with a book is easier when you mark it up. Doing so encourages you to reflect on and remember its ideas. It keeps you from passively taking in the author’s ideas or skimming the content.
  • Marking up a book transforms it into your personal  ‘intellectual diary’ because you record your reactions and views. When you return to a book you’ve marked up, you enjoy the added pleasure of re-reading your comments—where you agreed, disagreed, doubted, became excited, and questioned.
  • Because your marked-up book provides so much information about your thinking and your feelings, you may be reluctant to lend it to your friends. Tell them to get their own copy and encourage them to mark it up.
  • If you can’t stand the idea of writing in a beautiful or expensive book, buy a cheap second copy to mark up. Or write your comments on a sheet of paper that you can insert into your book.


How to mark up


Adler believed we should mark up books ‘intelligently and fruitfully’.  I think he was referring to non-fiction, but his ideas work as well for fiction. His suggestions:


  • Place marks (e.g., vertical lines, asterisks, numbers) in the book’s margins to highlight the author’s major points and most interesting ideas.
  • Use one mark (e.g. a vertical line) to pick out the author’s most important points. Restrict yourself to 10-20 main points.
  • Use the margins to record questions and comments that come to mind when reading.
  • Use the white space at the front or back of the book to write a summary and perhaps a critique.


I mark up most books, both fiction and non-fiction. Here’s my method:


  • I use a soft 2B lead pencil and only mark in the page margins. I no longer underline–too intrusive.
  • I use a vertical line to highlight what catches my attention—an idea, the way something is expressed, or an unfamiliar or interesting term. When reading fiction, I usually mark where the author has worded something in a special way, such as using an arresting image or an unusual descriptor. In non-fiction, I mark major points and again, anything that catches my attention.
  • I record my reaction as a reader  by adding exclamation marks, ticks (check marks) and question marks in the margins.
  • When I finish the book, I usually re-read what I’ve highlighted and sometimes I take notes.
  • If I’ve borrowed the book from a friend or the library, I erase my marks before returning it. I don’t want to foist my textual interpretations on others. But after marking up my own book, I keep the marks. The next time I pick up the book, my marginal notes help me locate information and remind me of my thoughts and judgments in my past reading.


Source:  G. Tate, 1973, From Discovery to Style. Cambridge Mass. Winthrop Publishers Inc. Pp 297-302.


Click here if you want to read Adler’s article.


© Marsha Durham, Writing Companion blog, WordPress.






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One Comment leave one →
  1. 12 September, 2008 8:07 am

    Gee . . . if they say writing in books is wrong . . . . I hope they don’t look at my personal Bible.

    I am an old-time book-marker. In fact, I probably ought to make yellow highlighters a line item in my annual budget. 😉


    MEME EXPRESS – daily blog prompts

    Hi Linda,
    Thanks for adding a note. I clicked onto your link and saw how many blogs you have running–I’m surprised you even have time to read! Marsha


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