Brain Pickings

Marginalia and the Yin-Yang of Reading and Writing

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The bibliophile’s property rights, or why the osmosis of agreement and disagreement belongs in a book’s margins.

The acts of reading and writing have always been intertwined, a kind of fundamental yin-yang of how ideas travel and permeate minds. Marginalia — those fragments of thought and seeds of insight we scribble in the margins of a book — have a social life all their own. But what is the future of marginalia in the age of the ebook? One answer came recently with the soft launch of findings, a new platform masterminded by Betaworks’ John Borthwick and my favorite nonfiction author, Steven Johnson, allowing you to save, export, and share excerpts from what you’re reading online and on your Kindle.

Yet, digital platforms aside, hardly anything captures both the utilitarian necessity and cultural mesmerism of marginalia better than this excerpt from the classic How to Read a Book, originally written by Mortimer Adler in 1940 and revised with Charles van Doren in 1972:

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.”

How marginalia will live on may be up for debate, but whether they will is not — they’re simply too essential a canvas for digesting and disputing concepts, too key a voice box for our inner monologue about the world of words and ideas.

HT reddit books

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