Why to Mark a Book

In addition to the people, the books in my house are my treasures. Our books aren’t rare or collectible. We usually buy paperbacks. The titles vary wildly; they run the gamut from Hop on Pop to City of God. I have a habit of hoarding favorites. I own several copies of my daily devotional because I’m constantly misplacing it along with my coffee cup, and I keep a few copies of C. S. Lewis: Readings and Meditations for Reflection by Walter Hooper because I like giving this favorite away.

As an extrovert at home raising five children, books have become my everyday friends. I escape into a book when I want the world to be a little larger than my kitchen and my company to be a little wiser than my six-year-old. Books represent people to me—the authors I dream of chatting up until dawn, the heroes I want in my foxhole, the saints who straighten my path.

My books don’t only connect me to people I wish I knew, however. They connect me, in a very special way, with people I love from afar. The books in my house have been marked; I get to hear voices that would otherwise be silent.

When my mother-in-law, Cheryl Lowe, passed away, my father-in-law knowingly gave me her books. This was one of the most endearing gifts I have ever received. Seeing her titles, I know her better. It is as if she were sitting with me and telling me her life story. Evident on the shelves are her interests, her passions, her whims. By a landslide, her books on religion win for quantity; she had three shelves of Bibles alone. Of course, there are Latin books—lots of them—and history also shows up in spades. But her collection is well-rounded. She was a chemist with a research mind, so I received more books than I’ll ever read on the sciences, plus every available translation of the classics. Though inordinately well-read and discerning, she was definitely not a snob. She collected children’s books and poetry books and art books. She loved cookbooks and travel guides and good fiction. If a book came recommended, my mother-in-law gave it a chance.

This meant she was flush with suggestions too. The majority of the books I read from age eighteen on were influenced by her. Often she’d gasp in the middle of a conversation and scurry away to retrieve a book she was appalled that I had missed. Sometimes she’d gush over the most unexpected selections. Just when I thought she’d insist that I read the Summa, she’d hand me a poetry book for children. She chose perfectly every time.

But, without question, the very best thing about her books is that she marked in them, nearly every book she read.

What an amazing gift!

Because of this I can visit her, I can talk to her, I can ask her opinion on a world of topics—even though I can’t.

Last Thanksgiving, I needed to talk to her about dessert. An excellent cook, she often consulted many recipes before settling on one or combining elements of each. Her favorite resource was Cook’s Illustrated, naturally, with its detailed explanations, rigorous testing processes, and scientific bent. In an article by Christopher Kimball detangling theories on pie crust, she underlined large sections of the text in red ink, including the sentence, “I was desperate for the simple truth.” Ah—she relates! “Persevere,” I heard her say. “It’s tricky.”

In addition to her empathy, her personality shines through in her markings. In one book there are three glaring typographical errors in a two-page spread. With her pencil, she circled the first one. The second one she marked with a question mark in the margin. Next to the third error, she put a large, dark exclamation mark. I could just imagine her exclaiming, “Inexcusable!”

In her Samuel Butler translation of the Iliad, she underlined Achilles’ quote, “If I stay here and fight, I shall not return alive, but my name will live forever. Whereas, if I go home, my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me.…” She deftly summarizes the dilemma—quoting either Herodotus or Billy Joel—with the words “only the good die young.”

Her insight shines through too. Rat explains to Mole in The Wind in the Willows how he catches words at intervals from the wind in the reeds. “I passed them on to you as they reached me. Ah! Now they return again, and this time full and clear! This time, at last, it is the real, the unmistakable thing, simple—passionate— perfect—” Knowing the purpose of book marking and the benefit of limited space, she synthesized this beautiful passage in the margin with concise and meaningful words: “inspiration—the muses.”

Without notes and underlines, these books would still hold their timeless literary value. But with them, they are so much more. They are priceless. They are personal. Even better than a Great Conversation, her books offer an intimate one. My children can have a conversation with their grandmother because she took up a pen when she read.

Mortimer Adler tells us that the “most important thing about reading … is that it must be active, not passive.” He goes on to say that there are two clear signs to indicate that reading is active. The first is that “you really have some fatigue” and the second is “pencil and paper work, making notes, marking the book, marking the margin, underlining passages.” I agree with Mr. Adler. And experience proves there’s even more to it.

Marking books ennobles both reading and relationships. Writing in margins is more than proof of good reading (though it is that). Underlining is not just about being able to quickly find the good bits (though it is that too). Marking a book personalizes the reading experience. Visually demonstrating contemplation, the exercise reveals the ideas and images that speak to our souls. When we return to the books we’ve read, our marks can show us how our perspective has changed—how we’ve grown in wisdom and maturity. When we read the markings of others we benefit not only from the author’s insight, but from our fellow reader’s too.

In my mother-in-law’s copy of Charlotte’s Web, she wrote in a final chapter: “Life is full of hard things but we can strive to help each other and raise ourselves to nobility. Charlotte knew all along she wouldn’t survive the Fall season, but she helped Wilbur to enjoy what she could not.” When we mark books, we, unlike Charlotte, can live beyond our season. We can continue, indefinitely, to help and speak to those we love.

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