A text-marking tragedy

Paul Szmanda

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For generations, school children had been taught to respect books. Books were creatures filled with life, and were to be treated with all the care their ideas had earned. In recent times, however, scholars have made a discovery that no one in the literary world had ever noticed before: we were reading all wrong.

It was in seventh grade that the concept of text-marking had been first introduced to me. The very idea just seemed so alien, so bizarre; it had gone against everything I’d ever known. And by the end of the following week, I had gone against my own morals, having annotated the entirety of my 112-page book, just like the teacher had ordered.

Remorsefully, I began to mark the book, flooding every page with my streams of blue until it came to look like a personal diary. After a long seven days, I went back and flipped through the “reading” I had done. In certain areas, the pages were crowded to the point where the original words themselves had disappeared — having dissolved in the sad sea of pen.

My annotations ended up earning a third of the points in all three divisions of the book. In some places I had marked too much, and in others too little; all throughout I had failed to mark the right stuff. I had read the book wrong.

To this day, I despise text-marking with a passion, doing so only for the grade. But in the beginning of this school year, we read one particular text that left me triggered. It was called How To Mark a Book, by Mortimer Adler.

The author claims that the only true way to own a book is to make it a part of yourself through writing in it. This idea would make for a reasonable argument; there are many advocates of text-marking who say that it benefits a person’s processing of information. However, Adler takes his statements one step further, shunning those who don’t feel annotating helps them.

Adler extends his praise of those who mark, scribble, dilapidate and virtually destroy books as being their “full owners”. He then begins his assault on those who do read a number of books from their library but insist on keeping them clean, arguing that they are still caught up in the physical appearance of the book itself.

The author declares that respect for the material book is merely respect for the work of the printer, rather than the genius of the writer. However, later on in the text, Adler also adds that to text-mark means to argue with the author, that it is the expression of your differences in opinion.

Despite having argued that keeping a clean book is to disrespect the “genius” of the writer, he seems to have no problem with some random 15-year-old who feels confident enough in his abilities to suggest Alexandre Dumas could have made a few edits to one or two of his masterpieces, such as to some of their titles — after all there were four musketeers, not three. But surely, William Shakespeare would be open to some thoughts on how real teenagers aren’t as poetic as Romeo or Juliet.

At point one, Adler comes to a pause in his tirade; when asked, he remarks that he would not call it false respect to preserve a “beautifully printed book, and elegantly bound edition.” He insists that he would no more scribble over a first edition of “Paradise Lost” than give his baby a crayon and an original Rembrandt.

Notice how easily he crumbles under the pressure of a single question, his hypocrisy giving in to the very idea he’d been arguing against. Yes, I myself would also never mark up a first edition of “Paradise Lost,” nor would I mark up any of my own books; I value every aspect of them. But for the author to be concerned with the physical structure of any book, no matter how valuable, is to fall into the lines of what he’d been fighting against.

It was in this statement that the author showed his standards, standards he believes everyone should live by. He believes that everyone should interact while reading. He believes that everyone should prize rare editions. He believes that everyone should text-mark their books.

It’s these types of standards that have us wasting hours marking up one chapter. It’s these types of standards that take the fun and relaxation out of books. It’s these types of standards that told seventh-grade me I couldn’t read.

Today I’m a sophomore taking two English classes, one at the honors level and the other at the Senior grade level; nonetheless, I still cannot text-mark. It’s interesting how that never had any negative effect on me. For now, I’ll let the writers do their writing and me, the reader, do the reading.