“How To Mark A Book” by Mortimer J. Adler

While working on your summer reading, be sure to get the most out of every book (and stay awake). Read this essay by the late Mortimer J. Adler on how to mark a book. He makes the case why your should, and then give some simple ideas on how to do it.

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.

He describes three types of book owners:

  1. The first has all the standard sets and best sellers — unread, untouched. (This deluded individual owns woodpulp and ink, not books.)
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)
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4 Responses to “How To Mark A Book” by Mortimer J. Adler

  1. Ken Dzugan says:

    If your enjoyed Dr. Adler’s article, “How to Mark a Book” you may want to read his book, “How to Read a Book” from which his article was taken.
    Here is my experience with the book. I had been a voracious reader all my life. I never thought that I needed to know anything more about how to read. However 1990 I read about a book by someone named Mortimer Adler whom I had never heard of. The title of the book was “How to Read a Book.” Even though I thought I knew everything about how to read I became intrigued by the title. I finally bought the book. I read it and then I read it again, and again, and again. Over the course of several years Dr. Adler dramatically changed what I read, how I read, and why I read. I used to read predominantly to be entertained. Now I read to learn. Using what Dr. Adler taught me, I now get in order of magnitude more out of books that I ever did before.

    Dr. Adler was an educator, philosopher, lecturer, and author with a prodigious output of over 50 books and more than 200 articles.

    For more information on Mortimer Adler and his work, visit The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas

    Ken Dzugan
    Senior Fellow and Archivist
    The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas

  2. bryant owens says:

    I devour my books, mark them up, and have little sticky post-its marking important pages. But they are not dog-eared and dilapidated, shaken and loosened by continual use, marked and scribbled in from front to back. One can own a book, devour it, and take care of it in order to devour it again and again. I see this as good stewardship. Books are precious. The knowledge in them is worth the extra care.

  3. How to Read a Book is a must for bibliophiles. It’s a bit long, but this extended quip I wrote a couple of years ago is apropro, I think.

    “Years ago Mortimer Adler wrote How to Read a Book. By the time I discovered it as an adult, I had already been a long-term bibliophile, loving books and loving reading them. At least, loving what I thought was reading them. In my pre-Adler ignorance I had suffered under the delusion that I actually knew how to read a book. The fact that I can have this conversation with you reveals that I was (and am), basically, a bookworm, what hip people today would classify as a nerd. But, then, so was my older sister. Molly and I frequently compared how many books we had amassed in our personal libraries, and though I rarely prevailed in the category of sheer numbers, I was more than pleased to point out that I had actually read mine.
    At some point, I gradually stopped reading as much fiction and developed a preference for nonfiction. This befuddled Molly, who was reduced – in her bewilderment – to expressing her disdain for my predilection by calling me “egghead.” Not to be outdone, I frequently retorted that she was “escapist.” The effects of nonfiction reading upon one’s creative vocabulary are, therefore, readily apparent, although I attempted to bridge this creative chasm by reading such nonfiction titles as The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate, as well as thesauruses and dictionaries of regular stripe, which did little more than confirm Molly’s earlier assessment.
    Although these reading choices served to increase Molly’s agitation, they did provide me ample grist for the mill of sibling rivalry. Her apoplexy ebbed when I pointed out that she had said “perspicacity” when she meant “perspicuity” and that she had confused flotsam with jetsam. None of that vocabulary superiority really mattered to me, however, on those occasions that I suffered a lengthy convalescence after being pummeled about the head and shoulders with my very own ten-pound Oxford-American Dictionary.
    The resulting tension manifested at every encounter between us, represented by her ubiquitous question, “What are you reading?” This was a shortened form of the real inquiry, “What dry, dull, dusty and altogether boring book are you reading now?”
    Imagine the effect, therefore, on my escapist, fiction-reading sister when she spied me happily scribbling notes in the margin of a nonfiction tome entitled How to Read a Book. I almost suspect that Mr. Adler knew, when he wrote it, the sort of intra-familial ruckus he was encouraging.
    “I can’t believe that you are such an egghead!” she would comment.
    “Whatever do you mean?”
    “Don’t you already know how to read a book?”
    “Don’t be escapist, dear sister [embellishment]. One can always benefit from the improvement of one’s reading skills. If, of course, one actually reads the books on one’s shelves.”
    [At this point there was much pummeling about the head and shoulders with an Oxford-American Dictionary or other hefty tome with intermittent shouts of “Take that, you ‘egghead; nerd; bookworm; brainiac’”.]”

    If you haven’t already, I highly recommend Adler’s book. But don’t let older sisters see you!

    Rob Faircloths last blog post..POLLUTED SACRIFICES (Malachi 1:6-14)

  4. Max WEISMANN says:

    We have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    When we discovered them and how intrinsically edifying they are, we negotiated an agreement with Encyclopaedia Britannica to be the exclusive worldwide agent to make them available.

    For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.

    I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:


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