Marking Our Books: Learning to Read all over Again


In 1612, the English schoolmaster John Brinsley wrote in his Ludus Literarius:

[mark] with little lines under them, or above them, or against such parts of the word wherein the difficulty lies, or by some pricks, or whatsoever letter or mark may best help to call the knowledge of the thing to remembrance … To do this, to the end that they may oftentimes read over these, or examine and meditate of them more seriously, until that they be as perfect in them, as in any of the rest of their books. [quoted from William Sherman, Used Books, pp. 3-4]

For many people today, I’m sure that Brinsley’s advice almost sounds heretical. Marking in books–let alone doodling in the margins, dog-earring pages, or jotting down notes around the printed text–is a travesty. We want our books clean, crisp, uniformly black and white, and without any evidence of other readers. I know I struggled with this for a long time, and even today, I feel a twitch of frustration when I see someone else’s markings in a used book I purchased.

However, this ideal notion of the book as a perfectly uniform object, I believe, has negatively effected our reading habits.  Books as untarnished and ‘pure’ objects is a notion that has created a mental block in our minds. Since textual engagement is not encouraged (in order to preserve the sanctity of the book)–at least not in any systematic or institutional way–we grow accustom to going to books for knowledge, entertainment, etc., and very little else. The act of reading is segregated not just to the cerebral, but even more narrowly to those parts of our brain that receive information and those that register pleasure. And what follows, I would surmise (though with very little evidence on hand), is what we have witnessed in terms of literacy and reading comprehension rates over the past few decades.

Early modern readers, on the other hand, treated books as practical items. Books were not merely conveyors of knowledge, information, entertainment, art, etc. They were tangible objects that should be engaged with in a palpable way. Early modern readers repeated (in writing) what was said in books. They argued with their books, sometimes to the point of violence (scratching out portions of text). Others created their own margin notes, with references to other works. Readers would write their signatures in random pages (often more than once in a single book), seemingly to practice their penmanship or to state ownership at various points in the text. Hand-written prayers, critical commentary, snarky remarks, arrows, a pointing finger, circles, illustrations, and doodling–all were typical marginalia in the early modern book.

One of the major reasons for encouraging these reading practices was, as Brinsley says, “to call the knowledge of the thing to remembrance.” It also created a relationship between reader and book that went beyond merely accessing information or enjoying a good story. Furthermore, it demonstrates an approach and understanding of the reading act–that of internalizing, slowly assessing, reading and rereading, and interacting with the text–that is often either discouraged or overlooked today.

While there were certainly fewer people that could read in the early modern Western world than there is today, those that could read seemed to have done it with much more flavor, gusto, and enjoyment than we do.

For good examples of this phenomenon, see here and here

For more on reading today see Alan Jacobs’s book and David Ulin’s book.



3 responses to “Marking Our Books: Learning to Read all over Again”

  1. I disagree with the author’s conclusion that reading for pleasure and/or information only has diminished reading comprehension. I am a voracious reader – I do write in my books occasionally (especially textbooks I teach from ) and my comprehension is, for the most part, excellent. Marking up one’s book, a priori, doesn’t necessarily make one understand what one has read. And like the author, that conclusion is based on a hunch, with no scientific evidence to back it up. Books were rare in previous generations and people tended to own them and didn’t think about selling them or disposing of them. When I buy used books, I always find it intriguing to read others’ markings if there are not too many of them. Too many I find distracting.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, freerambl1. I certainly would agree that marking up books doesn’t, on its own disconnected from anything else, increase understanding. However, such markings should never be considered, as you say, a priori. The practice of marking can be (though isn’t necessarily) an indicator of reading practices which can provide a more robust and complex relationship between reader and text. A reader who doesn’t mark up a book can possess excellent comprehension, depending upon both the reader and the book. But I would argue that marking up the text can only add to that comprehension.

  2. I haven’t bought a book in years. Why should I, when the neighborhood library has more than I could read in a lifetime? STILL, when I own a book, I like to underline some passages ….. not to help me remember them, but so that I can find them again. Or sometimes, I can re-read a book I’ve already read and marked up, in half the time the first reading took. I don’t underline the filler material.

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