Marking Our Books: Learning to Read all over Again

The News Magazine of HCU

By Dr. David J. Davis
The submission is from the HBU Humanities Blog, “Reflection and Choice.”

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,” p. 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 affected 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 accustomed 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 who could read in the early modern Western world than there are today, those who could read seemed to have done it with much more flavor, gusto and enjoyment than we do.