To Mark, or Not to Mark: That is the Question

December 06, 2014

Source: This article
I have been thinking a lot about an opinion piece that was published this week in The New York Review of Books. In it, Tim Parks argues for readers to come "armed" to their reading material with a pen, ready to mark (and re-mark, upon rereading) all they find interesting, insightful, incongruous or just plain "bullshit"-y about a text. He laments readers' (especially students') tendency to fall prey to worshiping the written word, simply because it comes in printed form and has "an aura of literariness," rather than engaging with it. Making an effort to record your thoughts, he says, can help dispel that urge to succumb to the artistry and instead breed an "alert resistance" among readers.

I don't tend to mark books, my main (and awfully boring) reason being that many of mine come from the public library. Librarian wrath is not the kind I want to incur. Even if the library didn't care, I would still feel guilty, like I would color someone else's experience of the story with my own biases and beliefs.

On a related note, I wouldn't want to color future me's experience of a text with prior me's biases and beliefs. This is weird, I know—logically, I should be able to look back on what I found important, interesting or compelling, take it into account, and do a fresh reading regardless. I also see immense value in being able to see how much my outlook has changed over time, something Parks also lauds. On the other hand, I worry that I wouldn't be able to see past my old thought patterns because, as much as I hate to admit it, I'm a pretty suggestible person, especially when my own brain is involved. Even writing this out feels ridiculous, but I guess we all have our quirks.

My third, least compelling reason is that writing in books somehow feels... wrong. Much like broken paperback spines grate on my boyfriends' nerves, the thought of mucking up the pages with my chicken scratch makes my nose wrinkle. This is maybe what Parks means when he says that "[w]e have too much respect for the printed word." Perhaps this is my personal form of idolatry, one that is worth breaking. Oddly, I see a solution in e-books—something tells me I'd feel a lot more comfortable annotating on a Kindle than I would in a physical book.

My main nitpick with the pen-as-sword approach is that there's something to be said for losing yourself in a good story or beautiful prose, rather than prowling it for its weaker points, ready to shred them apart. That makes reading sound a little too much like war and a whole lot less fun. Parks allows this point, for the most part, but he also notes the danger in it. He makes this particularly clear in one of his last observations:
"... if writers are to entice us into their vision, let us make them work for it. Let us resist enchantment for a while, or at least for long enough to have some idea of what we are being drawn into. For the mindless, passive acceptance of other people’s representations of the world can only enchain us and hamper our personal growth, hamper the possibility of positive action. Some¬times it seems the whole of society languishes in the stupor of the fictions it has swallowed." 
A good friend of mine put it this way: are you absorbing the material, or are you synthesizing it? Ultimately, I want to find a happy medium between appreciating the form and challenging the ideas. I guess I should go buy some pens.

So what do you think of this piece? Is marking up the book necessary to digesting the material? Do you mark your books?

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  1. I don't mark the book just because I'm too lazy. I do highlight on kindle books all the time though. However I'd love to see my thoughts on a reread as that just seems really interesting to me so I find it fun that your viewpoint is so different. I know also as I book lover I shouldn't want to harm books but it doesn't bother me! I think maybe when a book moves you enough to write in it that maybe the author is doing something right :)

    1. Yeah! To be honest, my own viewpoint is so contradictory and strange that I don't even know what it is. :) Definitely agree that, if you're moved to add your thoughts/feelings, the author is fulfilling his or her purpose.

      I found out that I can expect a Kindle as my big Christmas gift this year, so I may just become an e-book annotator yet!

      Thanks for the visit. :)

  2. Yay, hope you love your kindle. Happy highlighting :)