The Heresy of Underlining

By Colin Kerr


If you look at my bookshelves you will see that most of the new books I have purchased look as if they haven’t been read. A great many of them have been read, I am just very careful with how I treat them. I would like to believe that the books I have spent money on are worth every cent and more, so why not treat them as gingerly as I would the currency I used to pay for them? Of course, I buy a great number of used books and I treat these fairly delicately too. I don’t mind buying a used book. A worn book has a certain charm of its own. I don’t like highlighting and underlining, though. When I see stuff like this in books while scouring my favourite used books stores it is almost a foregone conclusion that I am not going to buy them.

I wouldn’t say I worship books. My wife might feel otherwise. And yet, the editor of that great Canadian publication, Catholic Insight, once called me an iconoclast because of what I did to books. During my stint as the librarian of a small Catholic college, much to his chagrin,  I was uncompromising in my practice of removing the jackets from the books I cataloged. Even though it is true that sometimes the dust jacket is the best thing about the book, they are nevertheless extremely annoying when it comes to sticking on bar-codes and spine labels and all that. I felt I owed it to whomever would succeed me as librarian there to do that. And I did worse things than that: I even threw some books in the garbage. Not every book is a good book; some deserve the trash. I threw out books, though never for ideological reasons: libraries are supposed to enable the great critical enterprise that is university education, and a library can only aid in that when it includes books of a great number of persuasions. I threw them out when they reached a certain level of decay, whether from mildew that resulted from improper storage or binding that had fallen apart, etc. Some of this caused me anguish, however, most time my heart was free.

But let’s go back to that other level of crime that has always exercised me: yes, I mean underlining.

I spent a decade-and-a-half as a university student, and, every year since then either teaching, researching or a combination of the two. In other words, I know universities, their libraries and books as few others do. Let me point out a few things I have observed about this phenomenon of underlining.

1) 90% of underlining occurs in the first 10% of the book,

2) 50% of the things underlined do not serve the goal that underlining is meant to serve: epitomizing the author’s theses and singling out other crucial facts,

3) because of (1) and (2), we can safely conclude that the vast majority of underlining, let’s say 99% give or take, is done by undergrads, really, really undergrads, who really don’t know what they are doing,

4) because of (1), (2), and (3) we can conclude that underlining is not an effective learning technique, so don’t do it. Especially not in pen, in a book that you do not own.

Facts 1-4 all applied to a so-called friend of mine who borrowed my biography of Hitler in the second year of my undergrad. I am still working towards forgiveness.

Now, these four facts are not always the case, just most often, as I’ve indicated. In fact, you might be surprised to hear that I too underline, though I mostly annotate (write little notes or introduce other markings into the margins). And, I do it in pencil only, and I only do this in books that are a part of my research, or for my reviews in The Catholic Review of Books.

Annotating is a part of our proud Catholic tradition. After all, if you would care to read it—as perhaps no one else has—my doctoral thesis was about St. Augustine’s Adnotationes in Iob, the marginal notations that Augustine wrote on his copy of the Book of Job. In fact, my research determined that the copy of Job he wrote in was the copy that St. Jerome had sent to him, which Augustine eventually lost! And they say scholarship is boring!

I think we should stop for a second and realize something: no matter how much your books cost you, you cannot even conceive of how much books cost before the invention of the printing press in the 15th Century. So bear that in mind if you are too quick to call writing in books a kind of sacrilege…

Now, Augustine wasn’t the only person who wrote in books. The Medievals took it to a whole new level, with ‘the gloss.’ This is just a fancy word for writing notes in books. Certain glosses on the Bible were gathered up, and, as in the case of Augustine’s Notes on Job, were turned into their own book. The most important of these collections of notes on the Bible is fittingly called the Glossa Ordinaria, or ‘Standard Notes.’ This book became quite authoritative in Scholastic Scriptural study – for instance, Aquinas quotes the Glossa Ordinaria all over the place. It possessed as much authority for him as Augustine or Aristotle. Medievals loved tradition; it was quintessence of authority. But of course, unlike most of the underlining of undergrads, the writers of these glosses—whoever they actual were—made important contributions.medieval

I have only one noteworthy experience with a ‘glosser.’ One day I happened to be reading through a copy of Plato’s Laws. It was well marked-up. But, because of what I had come to realize about those who write in books, I didn’t pay any attention to these markings at first. Then I slowly started to notice something. There was something more here. These jottings were actually quite smart. I flipped to the front of the book to see if anyone had written their name in the book, as people often do. Yes, someone had written their name there. This book had been none other than Peter Kreeft’s, the well-known Catholic intellectual. I hadn’t really read anything by Kreeft at that point, just a few pages of some of his stuff here and there. It was these jottings that made me realize that he wasn’t just a Catholic celebrity posing as a scholar, as I have always supposed some of our celebrities are. No, he actually deserves the praise he has received. I was impressed by the quality of his ‘reactions’ to the text. I was impressed by the fact that he obviously took the text seriously. In other words, Kreeft reads to learn and to engage with the author, not merely in order to knock another title off his list of ‘must-reads.’ This small thing was all the proof I needed in order to know that Kreeft must be a great teacher: after all, he was a great student.

What Kreeft did in that copy of The Laws was more than merely forgivable; it was commendable. Scholarship is often a lonely road. There are few mentors out there, and these are not easy to come by. Reading Kreeft’s notes was one of the few, very few, lessons I ever received from another scholar about what scholarship is, and about how great ideas are to be approached.marginalia

One often hears that great books deserve to be read more than once. I always laugh when I read those passages in Augustine’s letters where he is upbraiding people for not reading his books carefully enough, and then scolding them for asking question that anyone who who had actually read the book carefully would know the answer to.

One should never ask, have you read this book? One should ask, do you know this book?

A pristine text is a fine thing. Again, I have many on my shelves. The question is, how many of these have I managed to imprint on my soul?

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