Many years ago, when I was in (and indeed at) Oxford, my distinguished tutor borrowed a book from me. It was a newly published one, about Coleridge and the Imagination -- the sort of thing I, and of course he, were very much into at that time. When I got it back, it was literally covered in marginalia -- he had scribbled very rude comments all over it. I was slightly shocked, but he told me the book would be worth a lot more in the future because it. I'm not at all sure this is true, and have not put it to the test. Of course he was following in the footsteps of Coleridge whose marginalia are so famous that they have been published in a book, or series of books, all to themselves. Anyway I've just come upon this, from the New York Times, a collection of a year's worth of marginalia by one Sam Anderson. And I got there from here, a website called Brain Pickings, which I'd never even heard of until a friend send me a link this morning. All looks very interesting and I shall be exploring it soon. But I thought I'd just share with you the following defence of marginalia, from a book called How to Read a Book, by Mortimer J Adler, which I haven't read but now would rather like to:
When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it.
Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.
Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.
What do you think? Do you write in your books?