Generally, I loan my students copies of my books and they return them to me when they are finished with them. From time to time over the years I've had a student who, instead of returning my book to me, would offer me cash -- apologetically explaining that they had "ruined" my book by highlighting and underlining all throughout it. When a student tells me that they have thus ruined one of my books, I give them a hug or a handshake and tell them that my work is complete. They have become "intelligent readers."
Last week one of my current students returned a book to me. I flipped through the pages, noting that they were as clean as new-fallen snow. I thought to myself, "This has got to stop!"
I went to my shelf and pulled off a book and showed it to her. She was aghast as I flipped through the pages. It looked as if a toddler -- no, a band of toddlers -- had gotten hold of it! Pink highlighter, pen scribbles in the margins, underlining everywhere, pages turned down, and sticky note flags splaying out from the edges in every direction. "Now THAT is a well-read book," I told her.
Perhaps it is because she is the oldest of several children, and she is programmed to think in "hand me down" terms. But this student had never written in a book in her life. As I handed her a clean copy of the book I had just shown her, with the command to ruin it before she returned it, she almost asked me for a note to her mother to prove that this assignment was real.
Am I off base here? Is annotating a book (a fancy term for marking it up like crazy) simply the wonton destruction of property -- or is it (as I would argue) an important step in the process of becoming an intelligent reader? Margin scribbling has been a vital part of my self-education., but it's also more than that. "A pen in my hand" is more than a catchy name for my blog. It's a way of life. Whether I am reading or shopping or listening to a the radio or in a class or driving down the road, I have the constant need to respond to what is going on around me. I have to make notes, write things down, capture thoughts, record questions. The absence of pen or paper to me is what duct tape over the mouth would be to some. It produces a feeling akin to panic. (I have actually been known to write on my steering wheel when paper was not available in my car. Thankfully, airbags make a nice large writing surface!)
I know that not everyone is like me in this way. Some people can go a whole day without writing anything down, and I guess that's OK. But when it comes to reading books, I would defend my belief that a pen in the hand is nearly as important as a lamp in the room. Just as light focuses the eyes, a pen focuses the mind. It forces the reader to ask the questions, "What is important here? What do I think about this? What do I agree with? What do I question? What do I want to know more about? What ideas do I want to keep track of so I can share them with someone else?"
Mid-week I got an exasperated email from my student asking, "Are you SURE you want me to ruin a perfectly good book?" I could picture her, highlighter hovering uncertainly over the page, battling her instincts. The mental image made me smile -- not because it was amusing to think of her stressing out over this assignment (although that thought did amuse me) but because I knew that this moment was far more important to her than she realized.
It would grieve me to see this generation grow up ignorant of the art of intelligent reading. So, (sorry, parents) as long as I am teaching, I will continue to pass along to my students my motto -- which is simply this:
Any book worth reading is worth ruining!