How to Mark a Book
Creating an Annotating Code Assignment In Mortimer Adler’s 1940 essay, “How to Mark a Book,” he gives us three reasons for marking, often called
annotating, while you read:
? It keeps you awake
? Active reading is thinking
? You remember more of what you read.
Keeping awake, as well as thinking about and remembering the reading, are primary goals for most university
students. Use this assignment to accomplish these goals in this and other classes.
Develop a system (or code) for marking your textbooks and other readings that will help you better
comprehend and remember what you read. Your code should include a method to identify the following
? Essay or chapter thesis
? Each paragraph’s main idea
? Supporting reasons for the paragraph’s main idea
? Definitions and key terms
? Relationship between supporting ideas (organization ) within a paragraph or essay
? Connections between this reading and other readings
? Questions you have about the concepts you are reading
? Hot topics in the reading—ideas/language that are interesting or relevant to you.
Details of assignment
For your assignment, I want you to develop your system/code and then use it on one of the articles we read for
class today (“Angles on a Pin” or “In the Laboratory with Agassiz”).
1. Print a copy of the essay from Moodle.
2. Annotate/Mark the text using your code.
3. Provide a key to the code (see below for an example) on the last page or back page of the text.
4. Write a short paragraph (~250 words) that explains how your code helps you accomplish Adler’s
reasons for marking a text (see above). Why do the symbols you chose work for you? Did you choose
one symbol only to change it by the time you were finished? Did your system change? [If you can write
it legibly, you can hand write this paragraph below your code.]
Suggestions for Developing an Effective Code
Avoid Highlighting. Highlighting doesn’t really tell you anything. If you were to highlight each element of the
text, your article would look something like this:
At this point I need a short-hand. It is a curious fact that here pTttcdpmwisohoiurh oum iden“risusssfept eiti liefniosdn nisbn nds usn netpeai cbTSuaotgoosrbothuthmt n etaitlw Iel eotech .thl wh ebi nA rer(aa(sediepe i p vsegorsc taup lueaehhlfwsyde ro sarote i eatee eimwdmvnmon)rre)eio: h tp:ndeon ecr ruadoa saebaoentntta snnnhstpl eestmeiae c”eaoaus,dvl er berl,atntpva .hdoehe oen aneToreon otfyra ch wft n wdct cl ihhdeiwleo,oiec iee iltsampmeunlihovm,ignn rlcgaeohp eadoet etr fo“rnrh cb,pun at o wrclfialhtrtmesoemeesn tee aslrm whoedalyvitr orseuvull e aorteeyioradnrsyhea n kn bi we tearnsnwe stnees looh., ”glti tlteyn “wmteewehsorP svnr qaefeisep ae taerau deehcrlI enrletae erenmoaa ht n oitl em,iulsiiac omtt.swbn toiiieCs tlnaotsirwi staoonattigue stmethw n g”legiboa eov dsnhwpn toevaeuto t:lld “aan,o oiiti a eca stnn dnbbdemiavlcot ’v ua.ybtetyi roi tleo :ud o lat uwds ,thlo mu..hnslo oa ;soaat eyt uismrtrtts k”oli ee wdin ien s otbin q s hlsofipeeou n awgsnoaatiftoe rordsel plntey,s r.u hoa sd,ietI tbcleuia rgieclalyonageeaesd lng d mn hiioteet s olefifmaus ioe t reats‘shsrmpi s t“co .sia hu cs Oalinsroen erpul freawuaag honc r nlrht.oreini”g”vios u m ettbdfroiorusci tstred lhei l tto..a y hI ti e sI
You will need to reread almost the entire paragraph to understand why you highlighted each passage, so
highlighting doesn’t accomplish Adler’s goal of helping you remember what you’ve read. Also, it doesn’t take
any brain power to highlight. In fact, it is tempting to just highlight something that didn’t make sense, thinking
you’ll come back to it later. So highlighting doesn’t accomplish Adler’s other two goals of keeping you awake
and helping you think about the text.
You could color code, using blue for key terms, yellow for the thesis, etc. But think about how you read. Do you
really want to stop reading, look for a blue marker (probably in the bottom of your backpack), then grab the
Use a Pen or Pencil. A pen or pencil will be a better tool for marking your book because it gives you more
flexibility in marking your text. Compare the highlighted example above with the annotated example below.
Here is a partial key to the student’s marking code:
Main idea of paragraph = sentence written in margin
Definition of key terms = circle word
Support for main idea = [ brackets ]
Organization between ideas = line connecting two ideas
Purpose for paragraph/essay = | O
Hot topic/interesting idea = | *
Compared to the student who just highlights, the student using this code could quickly remember why she
marked each passage. The marginal summary gives a quick review of the entire paragraph. The student
connected with the starred passage because she saw herself in the statement that a person can parrot almost
anything. The circled words with the connecting lines help her quickly find the terms and definitions.
Consider how this annotated passage would help the student in a class discussion. If the teacher asks for the
definitions of “cow” and “bull,” she could easily find them. What about studying for an exam? By looking for
bracketed text, she could quickly review the reasons for the argument in this section of the article.
Test and Revise. Try out your code. Some people like to use stars and circles. Perhaps you will prefer writing
in the margins or underlining. Adapt your code to fit your preferences. Just make sure that you don’t exclude
one of the eight elements you should be looking for in your reading.
Don’t Overload a Paragraph. You probably won’t use all eight codes in every paragraph. Sometimes a
person can over-mark a paragraph, making it difficult to read the notes or even the original text.
Practice and Patience. Adler warns readers, “you may say that this business of marking books is going to
slow up your reading. It probably will. . . . The point [of reading] is not to see how many of them [books] you
can get through, but rather how many can get through you—how many you can make your own” (1941). As
you mark a text, you will improve your reading comprehension. And, even if your reading slows down a bit,
because your comprehension will increase, you’ll probably save time in the long run because you can review
material more quickly.
Adler, M. (1941). How to Mark a Book. The Saturday Review of Literature, July 6, 1941.
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