Back to the bookshelves

January 13, 2007

AFter a frustrating week at work I got up at 6 a.m. Saturday, looking forward to a couple of early morning upinterrupted hours of reading. Having started Flaubert’s Sentimental Education a couple of times in the last week, I picked it up again. After about 30 minutes I realized I just wasn’t interested, and remembered something Kate had posted earlier in the week – “I kept starting books and abandoning them, some for all time, but most with a view to attempting them again later when I’m more in the mood for them” I closed the book and headed back to the shelves. (Thanks Kate!) I remembered reading somewhere else about the importance of being willing to give up on a book that isn’t holding one’s interest, but was unsuccessful.

One of the books I searched was an old favorite that I have returned to many times, How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. It is a unusual type of book about reading, in that it attempts to help make the reading experience more valuable. If the concept sounds interesting, you would likely enjoy this book.

I was frustrated that I couldn’t find the quote I was looking for in this or any of the other titles I scanned. This has happened many times before, and I realized that maybe I need to make a change that will be difficult for me. You see, all my life I have been a reader. The books I own are treasures. It may sound wierd, but I treat them with respect from the moment of purchase. If I am buying a hardcover, I will go through the stack at the bookstore and ensure I am getting one with no minor damage to the dustjacket. When reading, I always remove the dustjacket so it doesn’t get damaged… my hands are clean and I don’t eat anything greasy… I always use bookmarks and never set a book down in a way that would damage the spine…. and I never, ever write in the margins, or highlight, or underline. Once a book is read, it is difficult to tell that it has been read. I know- strange.

I think I am missing a lot of the value I could be getting from the experience. The Adler/Van Doren book has a section titled, “How to make a book your own.” The list includes:

  1. Underlining
  2. Vertical lines at the margin
  3. star/asterik/and other doodad at the margin
  4. numbers in the margin
  5. numbers of other pages in the margin
  6. circling of keywords or phrases
  7. writing in the margin or at the top or bottom of the pages

Am I missing out? I’m curious how many of you write in your books. (Based on my current hitcount ‘you’ will include, on average, about one person). Last year I picked up a book called “Marginalia“, which I believe discusses some interesting and valuable booknotes from the past. I guess it is time to read that one and maybe start adding some additional “value” to my books. shudder

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16 Responses to “Back to the bookshelves”

  1. Techsplorer Says:

    Methinks we’ve got a bit in common. I too have How To Read A Book. I haven’t finished reading it though; put it back on the shelf until I was more in a mood to make it my own! I too treat my books well, and I haven’t been able to evolve myself to the writing in the book stage.

    Not yet anyway.

  2. Pierre Says:

    I would write in the margins, but I borrow from the library. So, that isn’t an option. I do make notes and underline in books that are my own, though. More frequently, however, I write notes and page numbers on my bookmark–usually a white flash card.

  3. sulz Says:

    i take really good care of my books, so no writing in it. but if i bought it secondhand i don’t mind treating it less nicely. it’s not my habit to write in my books as i read for pleasure and leisure. if i’m doing a term paper, i’d mark the page for quotes and such.

    http://sulz.daria.be

  4. imani Says:

    Well I read for pleasure and leisure too but I still underline and scribble. 🙂 I didn’t start until about a year or two ago when I started reading Proust which really just heightened my awareness of…everything really. If it’s a library book I jot things down in my notebook.


  5. And I thought I was the only one who loved “How to Read a Book”! Reading Adler as a teenager had a big effect on my career as a critic and is probably still influencing my blog, One-Minute Book Reviews.

    I use a one-to-three star system in the margins of books to help me remember what I want to write about: 1 star = maybe quote this; 2 stars = probably quote this; 3 stars = definitely quote this. When books have a lot of material I want to remember, I often find it easier to take notes on the blank pages at the back than in the margins. I’ll copy a quote and a page number on those pages. That way, when you want to retrieve the information, you can just scan the back pages instead of flipping through the whole book.

    I review new, old, and forthcoming books on my blog, and your comment has inspired me to put “How to Read a Book” on the list for 2007. Thanks!
    Jan Harayda
    One-Minute Book Reviews
    http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

  6. Dorothy W. Says:

    I write in my books sometimes. I suppose I decide early on if a particular book is one I want to write in — if it’s something I will return to and want quotations from or something that I need to do a little more work on to understand — and then I write in it or I don’t. I like the idea of writing in my books, but I get lazy sometimes and don’t want to do the work.

  7. Brad Says:

    Wow! Thanks for all the comments !

    Techsplorer – If you get back to the Adler book, let me know what you think. I found it gave me a different perspective on reading.

    Pierre – What a great idea with notes on flashcard/bookmark. Do you then leave the bookmark in the book or file it somewhere for future reference.

    Sulz – Most of my reading is for pleasure as well, but I frequently run into memorable and useful quotes. I think I should write it down, but don’t want to take the time- lazy I guess as Dorothy mentions in her comment. I think starting a blog brought the need for make notes back to my attention.

    Imani – I love your comment that Proust “heightened your awareness of…everything really.” Did you read Alain De Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life?

    Jan – I like the idea of using the blank pages in the book for notes to simplify the search for comments. I’m just have to get past my aversion to marking anything in my books. Your site sounds great and I am anxious to check it out.

    Dorothy – I have been reading your blog for too long to consider laziness as a factor in anything you do. I reject that explanation. (Speaking of lazy, I need to take the time to figure out how you all create the little yellow smiley face.)

  8. w Says:

    I have to remind myself to underline or mark asterisks in the margins, as usually I leave the book as unmarked, as un-dog-eared, and as unwrinkled as possible. But lately I’ve been underlining passages on nearly every page of David Albahari’s Bait, for its beautiful language and transitions from scene to scene are quite exhilarating.


  9. These comments are fun to read. After I left a comment yesterday, I realized that your vistors might like to know how professional critics answer the question: Should you write in books?

    Staff critics at magazines and newspapers get advance readers’ editions of books, also known as bound galleys. These are uncorrected proofs of a book. (The author also gets a bound galley so that he or she can make corrections.) Advance readers’ editions are rough paperbacks that may have a cover that looks like the finished book (with the same art) but more often has just the title, author’s name and a few other facts on plain gray or pastel paper. Sometimes advance readers’ editions are just bound manuscript pages. And the rough quality of these editions can make it psychologically easier to mark them up.

    Some used bookstores sell bound galleys mixed in with other books or in a special section tucked away in the back. If you’re interested in seeing galleys, ask the owner of any used bookstore if the store carries these. It makes for guilt-free marginal note-taking …

    Thanks for the blogroll listing!
    Jan Harayda
    One-Minute Book Reviews

  10. w Says:

    Note, too, that bound galleys are full of errors—grammatical, design-wise, content-wise—and many times a writer will edit like crazy from this version, especially if he or she is a first-time author, and especially if the book is topical nonfiction. That’s why if you were to compare the bound galleys of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Blood Horses or of Karolyn Smardz Frost’s I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land to the actual printed books, you’ll find two very different versions of each. So I’d recommend reading bound galleys either as a teaser to the finished product, or as the actual finished product only if the writer is seasoned (like Richard Powers or Lynne Olson) because this type of writer will submit an assured, finished manuscript to his publisher for printing and will have just a few tweaks to make once bound galleys are in.

  11. imani Says:

    Brad I haven’t read it, no, but I’ve heard quite a lot about it. I figure I should actually complete In Search of Lost Time before I go reading books about it. 😉

  12. Pierre Says:

    Brad-The bookmark method works well for me, and I keep the bookmark in the book while I read. I later file it away, for reference. Sometimes I go through five or more flash cards per book, but it’s a happy medium between writing in my book or keeping it clean.

  13. jenclair Says:

    Most books, I flag if I really want to come back to a passage, but there are some that I do highlight and annotate. The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate is one of those. The yellow highlighting is from 1994; the green, is from 1997, and the purple is from Dec. 2001. On some essays, I’ve included marginalia as well. I enjoy seeing connections I’ve made on different readings. The same is true of my copy of A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature – sometimes all that is written is the title of another work that connects in some way.


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