I read an article the other day by an academic who advocated always reading with a pencil in hand. He is an inveterate scribbler in the margins of books he reads. His view is that this encourages him to be an active reader engaged in a dialogue with the author rather than a passive recipient of the author’s views.
His marginal comments include “Rubbish!” and “No argument or facts to back this up – mere assertion.”
He wants his students to read critically and not simply accept what is written just because it is printed on the page. He says there is a tendency to give excessive credence to what we might otherwise challenge simply because we come across it on the page.
This was, I should stress, a view expressed in the context of literature classes, where the books in question are fiction not in other disciplines where you might expect to see debate on differing perspectives. He cited the example of a class which read a passage from Virginia Woolf where the protagonist put forward a biased set of reasons why suicide seemed reasonable without any critical reaction. He goaded the class into producing counter-arguments which resulted in a very different interpretation of the passage and the light it shed on the author’s own balance of mind at the time. It led to an informed discussion on whether Woolf’s subsequent suicide might have been foreshadowed in her writing.
The article challenged me because I have never marked up a copy of any book I’ve read. Certainly not novels I’ve bought to read for pleasure. I’ve even got text books from my time as a student (a long time ago but I’m a hoarder – at least where books are concerned) which remain pristine. OK, I did underline key passages in my school copy of books I was studying for exams but even then I did so sparingly. I tended to copy them out laboriously into my notes.
But it made me think. Maybe we can divide the world into annotators and – what can I call their antithesis? – preservers of the pristine page. Where do you fall in this divide and why?