hen I was a tad and scribbled in my picture books, my mommy and daddy scolded and sometimes punished me. No dummy, I learned well that books are too sacred to be defiled by childish markings. When I got to college, however, one of my favorite profs told me that he never read a book without a pencil in hand to underline and make comments. At first it felt a little naughty to write in a book, but I soon got the hang of it. My old prof was right: books are too important not to write in. In fact, the more I have annotated a book, the more valuable it becomes to me. Four years from now, when you receive your degree from UR and pack up your belongings, your library of well-annotated books is likely to be the most valuable possession you take with you.

What do we hope to accomplish when we write in our books? Most practically, perhaps, we make it easier to remember what the book has to say when we go back to it. Reviewing a book without a mark in it is like starting all over, but rereading a book with underlinings and marginal notes is like having a road map to the contents.

Underlining and writing in the margins also brings us into a kind of dialogue with the author. Anyone who writes a book is inviting readers to understand and appreciate what he or she has been thinking. When we read a book actively, we find ourselves in a conversation. If we are not asking questions of the author as we read, then we are not really reading at all. Every question, every comment, every reference to another writer or to our own experience helps us understand what the author was thinking.

When we begin to see the world as the author sees it, then it is time to decide whether that way of seeing the world is worth keeping. Jotting down challenges to the author can help us clarify just where we think our view of the world might be more useful or accurate or satisfying. Those challenges also force us to think about our own world view.

The ways in which active readers mark texts are almost as varied as the readers. In fact, there are lots of different useful strategies for marking and only a few that do more harm than good. High-lighters, for instance, are almost worthless, because they make it difficult to write comments or challenges. We have all seen books in which almost every line is yellow; the net effect is merely to make reading difficult.

Enough of this. It is time to try your hand at marking a text. On the next pages you will find the Preface of Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequality. Your job is to print these pages and read them with pencil or pen in hand, underlining, questioning, commenting and annotating as you see fit.


--Martin Ryle, History Department