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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 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 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 questions.
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 it:
- 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.
This is Water
David Foster Wa!ace
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet
an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says,
“Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a
bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes,
“What the hell is water?”
If at this moment, you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the
wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I
am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the
most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are
the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course,
this is just a banal platitude — but the fact is that, in the day-to-day
trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death
importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense.
A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is,
it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter
wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in
my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the
absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important
person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-
centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the
same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our
boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you
were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right
there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV,
or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to
be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent,
real — you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to
preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called
“virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do
the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired
default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see
and interpret everything through this lens of self.
People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often
described as being “well adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an
Given the triumphal academic setting here, an obvious question is how
much of this work of adjusting our default-setting involves actual
knowledge or intellect. This question gets tricky. Probably the most
dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it
enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract
arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s
going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what’s going on inside
me. As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert
and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue
inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come
gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how
to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea:
“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control
over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough
to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct
meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of
choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about
“the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many
clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great
and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who
commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head.
And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before
they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value
of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from
going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead,
unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of
being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.
That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let’s get concrete.
The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what
“day in, day out” really means. There happen to be whole large parts of
adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches.
One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The
parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the
morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten
hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all
you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a
couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the
next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at
home — you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your
challenging job — and so now after work you have to get in your car and
drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very
bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you
finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the
time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some
grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused
with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last
place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: You have to
wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you
want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other
tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially
slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block
the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask
them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies,
except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even
though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long,
which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the
frantic lady working the register.
Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food,
and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then
get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death,
and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in
your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load
the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the
bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to
drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic,
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work
of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long
checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious
decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be
pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural
default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about
me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home,
and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way,
and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of
them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they
seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that
people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look
at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved
and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these
stupid god-damn people.
Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious form of my default-setting,
I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted
at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup
trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can
dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem
to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest,
most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell
phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead
in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children’s children will
despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel and probably screwing up the
climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all
just sucks, and so on and so forth…
Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do — except that
thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a
choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic,
unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of
adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I
am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are
what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are
obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this
traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’s not impossible that
some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the
past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but
ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to
drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a
father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s
trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate
hurry than I am — it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to
force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the
supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that
some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful
lives than I do, overall.
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m
saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to
just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort,
and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-
out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a
choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-
lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe
she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding
the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very
lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday
helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some
small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s
also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If
you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is
really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then
you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and
annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention,
then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your
power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as
not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars
— compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that
mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that
you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously
decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to
Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of
adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing
as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to
worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or
spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the
Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set
of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will
eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap
real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have
enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure
and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will
die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know
this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides,
epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping
the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel
weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the
fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up
feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re
evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day,
getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure
value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the
world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings,
because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on
the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship
of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that
have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The
freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the
center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But
of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most
precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of
winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of
freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and
being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over
and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.
The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the
constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly
inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of
rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you
wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon.
None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions
of life after death. The capital- T Truth is about life before death. It is about
making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the
head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and
essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep
reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and